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Infrastructure deal leaves committee chairs “pissed” as new power brokers emerge

The G10 is on the cusp of a victory lap for getting a seemingly impossible infrastructure deal through the Senate — but the process also shows how a closely divided Congress has undercut the traditional power brokers.

Why it matters: Committee chairs and their staffers told Axios they're furious — "pissed" is the term one used — with how the bipartisan group bypassed traditional processes to produce a bill directly with the White House. And they worry it's part of a shifting power dynamic on Capitol Hill.

  • Just as groups of basketball players have been banding together to force owners to let them play on the same NBA team, groups of lawmakers can come together and set the terms for what they'll support.
  • The traditional process of reaching consensus in a congressional committee is being upstaged by members who dictate what they will and won't support from the outset.
  • As much power as holdouts Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) 0r Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) can have in a 50-50 Senate, like-minded blocs in both the House and Senate can exert even more clout because their members can't be cast as outliers or picked off as easily. There's power in their numbers, and that makes them pivotal dealmakers.
  • In the narrowly divided House, progressives like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) need only a couple of allies to extract their own infrastructure bargain from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the White House.

What they're saying: The Senate is expected to pass the infrastructure package in the early hours of Tuesday morning, unless members strike an agreement to speed up the process. So far, attempts to do so have failed. Leadership in both parties predicts the bill will pass by a healthy margin.

  • "This is especially surprising, considering the fact that both [Sens. Mitch] McConnell and [Chuck] Schumer, as leaders of the United States Senate at various times, have always said they're going to work through the committee system," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Axios.
  • "The Commerce Committee was at a disadvantage," Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the panel's ranking member, told Axios. "It's a bit of a problem that you had people negotiating the [broadband] section that didn't have an expertise in that area."
  • "The chairs were pissed; they still are," a Senate Republican aide to a relevant committee chair told Axios.

The other side: "I know the committees didn't really like it, but these guys got a work product, I mean, I'll be blunt," said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). "I'm not at all upset about the process. It did take some time, but that's because the bill is so big."

  • "We're all for regular order, but regular order hasn't been working here for a while," said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). "And so, while it's frustrating to have such an informal process, I think the proof is in the pudding."

What we're hearing: Critics of the process said it was messy, with too many cooks in the kitchen and lawmakers and staff taking on aspects of the legislation even when they lacked specific policy expertise.

  • Two sources cited an element of the deal negotiated by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) over electric-vehicle (EV) buses. It's one of the biggest priorities for the administration, and Vice President Kamala Harris championed the legislation as a senator.
  • The sources said Coons initially made a deal within the G22 that White House officials considered inadequate because they felt too much money went toward ferries — something Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) pushed for — and “dirty-diesel” buses.
  • The White House then went to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to "fix" the agreement. Said one of the sources: "This was one of the issues that held up the bipartisan deal until the last minute."

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