Infrastructure push slowed by Tennessee senator’s objection

Regional News
Bill Hagerty

FILE – In this March 23, 2021 file photo, Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., and other senators finish voting at the Capitol in Washington. As the Senate nears passing a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, the freshman senator and staunch ally of former President Donald Trump has used the chamber’s procedural rules to single-handedly slow the pace of congressional action to a crawl. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — One by one, Democrats and Republicanstrekked to the Senate floor on Sunday touting a $1 trillion infrastructure proposal and argued that, after months of haggling, it was time for a final vote on the measure.

Standing in their way: Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee.

The freshman senator spent the weekend using a procedural maneuver to essentially grind the chamber to a halt. A final vote that could have happened days ago could now linger into the early hours of Tuesday morning, forcing lawmakers to give up their second consecutive summer weekend to plod through the minutia of Senate rules.

More than a dozen Republicans have joined Democrats to clear initial hurdles on the infrastructure bill, meaning the legislation will almost certainly pass despite Hagerty’s protest. But the effort could raise the profile of a one-time Trump administration official eager to align himself with the former president, who has stepped up efforts to derail the package.

“I think he’s doing Trump’s bidding. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., one of the lead negotiators of the package, said in an interview. “I think they want to try to draw this out as long as they possibly can and hope and pray that Congress fails.”

In Hagerty’s telling, his reasoning for taking a stand has less to do with Trump and more about the measure increasing the federal deficit by about $256 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Once Congress approves this legislation, Democrats are planning to take up an even more ambitious — and expensive — spending measure on their own.

“Democrats’ true intention is to rush this bill through,” Hagerty said Sunday, adding that Democrats want to pass the bill quickly so they can pivot to the separate $3.5 trillion spending plan, which he derided as “a socialist debt bomb.”

The overwhelming majority of Americans — about 8 in 10 — favor plans to increase funding for roads, bridges and ports and for pipes that supply drinking water, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

But that hasn’t stopped Trump from blasting the proposal and discouraging Republicans from supporting it, even though Trump himself tried and failed to pass a pricier infrastructure package as president.

In Hagerty, a 61-year-old businessman and financier, Trump has found a willing ally whose affinity for the former president marks a notable transition from orthodox Republican to ardent Trump supporter.

Trump called Hagerty on Sunday morning, said a person familiar with the call who requested anonymity to discuss it. Later in the day, Trump egged Hagerty on in a statement, while criticizing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for failing to help pass Trump’s own infrastructure proposal when he was still in the White House and Republicans held a Senate majority.

“Congratulations to Senator Bill Hagerty in remaining true to ‘AMERICA FIRST!'” Trump said.

A private equity investor, Hagerty had long been enmeshed in Republican politics. He previously served in the administration of George H.W. Bush and went on to work for the failed presidential campaigns of Republicans who later became Trump critics — John McCain and Mitt Romney, to whom he and his wife donated $100,000. He also served as economic development commissioner under a Republican governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam.

Like many in the GOP, Hagerty hopped from candidate to candidate in the 2016 election cycle before it became clear Trump would become the nominee and his confrontational approach would reshape the party. Hagerty had been for Jeb Bush, then Marco Rubio, and ultimately, Trump.

He joined Trump’s Victory Committee as finance chairman and donated about $11,000 to Trump, disclosures show. After Trump’s win, he served as a key transition team leader and, in 2017, became ambassador to Japan.

Months before Hagerty launched his 2020 Senate bid to succeed the retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander, Trump preempted his announcement by tweeting that he would endorse him, which Hagerty used as a centerpiece of his self-financed run, which he funded with $7.3 million in loans, records show.

“The president knew where my heart was. He and I had been talking about this for some time and he had encouraged me strongly to do it,” Hagerty told the AP in 2020.

His campaign leaned heavily on a Trump-style of politics that was a turnoff to some of his previous bosses.

On top of traditional GOP issues like gun rights, opposition to abortion, low tax and regulatory burdens and a tough stance on immigration, Hagerty adopted Trump’s brash tone when talking about Democrats, the Black Lives Matter movement, and others in the then-president’s crosshairs.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Donald Trump Jr. went to Tennessee to boost Hagerty. Other Trump world figures who supported his bid include Kellyanne Conway, Lara Trump and Larry Kudlow.

“I’ve known Bill for a long time. He was one of my earliest supporters,” Trump said during the 2020 tele-town hall event for Hagerty at the height of the pandemic. “He’s been so great in so many ways. We need to send great conservative voices out there.”

After taking office in January, Hagerty hired over a dozen former Trump administration officials to serve on his Senate staff.

Some Republican have cheered Hagerty on.

Indiana Sen. Mike Braun applauded Hagerty for “standing on principle,” though he conceded that the days have gone by slow and he’s bided his time by reading a book and doing crosswords.

“What I’d rather be doing? Back home on my farm picking weeds,” Braun said.

To other colleagues, however, the effort amounts to a waste of time.

“We have squandered not minutes, not hours, but several days,” said Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who supports the measure.

Romney, R-Utah, also sought to blunt the campaign against the bill.

“Criticism is expected. And, I note, criticism is also pretty easy,” Romney said. “If you don’t like this bill, what bill do you like instead? What would you do instead?”

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AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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