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Water bill may open spigot for Biden infrastructure plan

ap photo Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., arrives to the chamber ahead of President Joe Biden speaking to a joint session of Congress, Wednesday, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

WASHINGTON — Rarely has a routine water resources bill generated so much political buzz, but as senators hoisted the measure to passage Thursday the bipartisan infrastructure legislation served as a potential template for building consensus around President Joe Biden’s ambitious American Jobs Plan.

The Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021 authorizes about $35 billion over five years to improve leaky pipes and upgrade facilities, and is widely supported by lawmakers and their states back home. This time, though, it could be so much more — a building block in Biden’s broader $2.3 trillion proposal to invest in roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Senators overwhelmingly approved the measure, 89-2, in what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called “a great example” of what’s possible in Congress.

“Let it be a signal to our Republican colleagues that Senate Democrats want to work together on infrastructure when and where we can,” he said.

Still, the day after Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress outlining his sweeping proposals to reinvest in America infrastructure the path ahead is expected to be long and politically daunting.

With Congress essentially split, and Democrats holding only slim majorities in the House and Senate, Biden and the congressional leaders will soon have to decide how they plan to muscle his priority legislation into law.

The White House is reaching out to Republicans, as Biden courts GOP lawmakers for their input on the package and to win over their votes. “We welcome ideas,” he said during the joint address.

But most Republicans are opposing Biden’s overall agenda as big government overreach. Together the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, a robust investment in free pre-school, community college and child tax breaks, sum an eye-popping $4 trillion.

The water bill is an example of what’s possible, but also the gaping divide.

The $35 billion effort falls far short of what the president has proposed, $111 billion over eight years. But it is in line with what a small group of Republican senators proposed last week as a counteroffer to Biden’s infrastructure package.

One key lawmaker, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who has been in talks with the White House and helped lead the water bill to passage, marked the moment Thursday.

“We know the next couple of weeks and months are going to be tough,” said Capito, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, in a speech before the vote. “I’m hopeful that as we move forward with our other infrastructure packages that we remember this moment.”

The water bill is the kind of routine legislation that has been a mainstay on Capitol Hill, but that lawmakers have struggled to pass in recent years amid the partisanship and gridlock, and the power that party leaders exert over the legislative process.

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