The bipartisan deal on infrastructure, which is expected to include billions of dollars to ensure every American has access to broadband, is moving forward. Hours after a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators announced a deal with Democrats on an infrastructure package, the chamber voted to advance the measure. A final vote on the bill is expected within days.
The procedural motion was passed 67-32, including 17 Republicans who joined the Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was among those voting to move ahead with the proposal.
President Joe Biden welcomed the news and said it showed that America can still “do big things.”
“This deal signals to the world that our democracy can function,” Biden said ahead of the vote. “We will once again transform America and propel us into the future.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the White House released a fact sheet on the much anticipated infrastructure bill after weeks of tense negotiation. The Senate’s infrastructure package is expected to include $1.2 trillion of spending over the next eight years, which will include $559 billion in new spending.
In addition to funding projects for traditional infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and public transit, the White House fact sheet said the legislation will also include funding for electric vehicle charging stations and high-speed broadband. Specifically, there will be a $65 billion “investment ensuring every American has access to reliable high-speed internet.” (This figure has been scaled back from Biden’s original proposal of $100 billion in broadband spending.)
This investment in broadband comes as policy makers acknowledge that broadband access has become as vital to American life as electricity. The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns over the past year have shown how important broadband is to ensuring Americans, whose jobs allow it, are able to still work, access their education and receive health care services remotely.
And yet as many as 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds, according to the White House. It’s a problem known as the digital divide, and it’s dogged policy makers for decades.
The broadband details
The White House said that in addition to making sure that broadband infrastructure is available to all Americans, the legislation will also help make broadband service more affordable by requiring companies receiving federal subsidies to offer low-cost affordable service plans. It will also require broadband providers to be more transparent about their pricing so consumers can comparison shop. And it will “boost competition” in areas where existing providers aren’t providing adequate service, although how the legislation does this is still vague.
The White House also said the legislative package would include language from the Digital Equity Act, a bill introduced in March meant to provide funding to programs that promote digital literacy and access for low-income Americans. As part of this effort, the bill is expected to create a permanent program to subsidize the cost of broadband for low-income families along with a new program to help pay for devices like laptops and tablets.
Details of the plan haven’t been announced, but it’s expected the Federal Communications Commission, which already allocates federal subsidy programs for broadband, will be administering it. Earlier this year the FCC began administering the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which offers a $50 a month subsidy to people struggling to pay their broadband bill. The funding for the program came from congressional COVID relief funding.
The White House also said the infrastructure legislation will aim to end the practice of digital redlining, or the practice of broadband companies refusing to provide or build access to service in areas deemed to be a poor financial risk.
Wednesday evening’s vote could allow the Senate to pass the infrastructure bill before the chamber adjourns for its summer recess the second week of August. While the breakthrough is important, the legislation could still fail. The specific language of the bill is still being written. Progressive Democrats are likely to push for more funding for many projects, while Republicans and more moderate Democrats will likely try to reign in spending.
If it passes the Senate, the bill then moves to the House, where progressive Democrats are likely to continue to push for more funding and Republicans will likely balk. The outcome of this legislative package will also likely set the stage for the next big debate over Biden’s more ambitious spending package, which totals $3.5 trillion in spending. That package includes programs and services for things like child care, tax breaks and health care, which President Biden says are important to building America’s human infrastructure. Republicans strongly oppose that legislation, which Democrats hope to pursue through a budget reconciliation process that would require only a simple majority vote.