Battle Lines Drawn on Bipartisan Path for Infrastructure Package

  • Republicans call for bill with revenue, modest scope
  • Earmarks could help get GOP on board

Climate change and revenue sources are set to be some of the key divisions between Republicans and Democrats as they start discussions on a bipartisan infrastructure package.

Members of the GOP are calling for a modest package that’s limited to traditional infrastructure and includes funding offsets. Their demands took on new importance this week as House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said he doesn’t want to advance the bill using the expedited budget reconciliation process that would require only Democratic votes.

Democrats have discussed a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure package that aims to tackle some of the Biden administration’s major goals, ranging from climate change to racial equity. Democrats say they’re hopeful they can find common ground with Republicans, while also winning GOP support by funding projects in lawmakers’ districts through a restored earmark process.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers met with President Joe Biden Thursday to discuss their shared infrastructure goals. DeFazio told reporters after the meeting that Biden, who campaigned on a $2 trillion package, wants “to move as quickly as possible” on a “very big” bill.

Biden Gets GOP Warning on Infrastructure: Expect to Pay for It

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
President Joe Biden meets with a bipartisan group on infrastructure at the White House on March 4, 2021. Shown clockwise from left: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.).

Opening Bid

House Democrats plan to use last year’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure package as a basis for this year’s bill. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said that, although there will be changes, “it will be the template that will be used.”

But Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said it was “an extraordinarily partisan bill” that shouldn’t be replicated.

“I hope they don’t start with that,” he said in an interview. “There was no bipartisanship to it whatsoever.”

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), who attended the meeting, said he got the impression that Biden wanted to work across the aisle instead of allowing the debate to be “hijacked” by Democrats.

“If Nancy Pelosi is requiring the Dems on transportation infrastructure to start with H.R. 2, then it tells me they’re wanting this process to be partisan and not succeed,” Davis said in an interview, referring to last year’s infrastructure package. “I certainly hope that’s not going to be the case.”

Climate Dilemma

Democrats plan to double down on their climate goals, which could be another sticking point in hopes for bipartisanship.

“The President was very clear that the infrastructure has to be built for the future,” Garamendi, who attended the meeting, said in an interview. “The future requires a reduction in greenhouse gases, and in fact, it requires net zero.”

Graves, who also attended the meeting, said Democrats have to focus exclusively on transportation-related goals in a highway bill, and keep the total spending in check if they want Republican votes.

“It’s important to us that we have a transportation bill,” he said. “This isn’t a Green New Deal bill with a few transportation projects sprinkled in.”

Finding Overlap

At the same time, some Democrats in the meeting left room for compromise.Garamendi said he has been successful getting Republicans on the Armed Services Committee to move the military toward policies that reduce greenhouse gases by avoiding certain language, a tactic he thinks could work for infrastructure.

“We don’t use the word climate change,” he said. “We use the words conservation, cost reduction, less fuel consumed. The different words you can use to achieve the same goal of addressing the climate crisis.”

Republicans are also interested in reducing regulation. Davis said he brought up in the meeting that he wants the infrastructure package to include the One Federal Decision Act . The bill introduced in the House last year would streamline the environmental review process for major projects. A bipartisan surface transportation reauthorization bill from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the last Congress included a similar proposal.

“We spend so much time when it comes to infrastructure investment, just investing in review after review after review, there’s sometimes layers between multiple agencies,” Davis said in an interview. He said the process in his bill would get “projects off the ground much more quickly, which in turn, creates the jobs that President Biden talked about creating yesterday.”

Funding ‘Shell Game’

Graves, who backs a shift from fuel taxes to a vehicle miles-traveled tax to fund transportation, said lawmakers didn’t discuss specific ways to pay for the packageduring their meeting with Biden. He said borrowing “money time after time is not the way to approach this.”

“If we don’t have the dollars, it’s just a shell game and I think that’s the wrong approach and it’ll be hard to get Republicans on board,” he said.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle want to address the insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, the primary source of federal highway and transit funding. Davis said Democrats have previously talked about making the fund sustainable for the long-term, but that hasn’t come to fruition.

“I would love to sit down and debate how we put together a much more diversified sustainable Highway Trust Fund portfolio,” Davis said.

Graves also repeatedly emphasized that Democrats “have to remember that the country is made up of both rural and urban.”

Some Republicans have criticized bills that boost funding for transit, which tends to flow more to urban areas, including in Democrats’ Covid-19 relief package under debate in the Senate that would provide about $30.5 billion for transit.

Avoiding Reconciliation

House Democrats announced a new process to include earmarks, or funding for specific projects, in the highway bill this week. Those earmarks could help boost GOP support.

Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) said he used the White House meeting to talk about the importance of the Interstate 81 project and the need for investment in central New York’s water infrastructure.

“I’m hopeful this discussion will serve as a jumping-off point for additional collaboration on a bipartisan package that will deliver long-overdue resources to repair and develop our nation’s infrastructure system,” Katko said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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