House Democrats Want Say in Infrastructure Deal Inked by Senate

  • DeFazio urges adding climate change provisions to the package
  • Big changes could cause deal to unravel, key Republican warns

The Senate spent months finessing its $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan. Now its House counterparts want their own say on the major legislation.

House lawmakers, most notably House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), have repeatedly criticized the Senate package for leaving out provisions from the House-passed surface transportation and water bill that address climate change and fossil fuel pollution.

But making those changes could jeopardize Republican support for the final product after a bipartisan group of senators crafted a compromise intended to win at least 60 votes needed to advance the measure in that chamber. The Senate is working to pass that bill (H.R. 3684) before leaving for the August recess.

“We have had extensive negotiations with the White House, with the Democrats, and with Republicans to come to a bill that we can all agree on,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), one of the negotiators of the legislation, said in an interview. “Substantial changes of that bill would make it very difficult for it to ultimately become law.”

Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, speaks at a May 12 news conference on his panel’s transportation bill. DeFazio wants the House to make changes to a $1.3 trillion infrastructure package negotiated by a bipartisan group of senators.

DeFazio said there will be time to make changes, especially if Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delays the vote on the infrastructure bill until the Senate has also sent the House the larger reconciliation package that would include an array of domestic programs in areas such as health, labor, and education.

“If they send it over here in early August, it will sit. It will sit for a very long time,” DeFazio said in an interview.

He said that time could be used to “engage the experts, the committees of jurisdiction, as opposed to the 10 random people involved in writing the bill, and propose changes and see what agreements we could come to.”

Other House Democrats have changes in mind as well.

The majority of the House Progressive Caucus isn’t satisfied with the $15 billion the bill provides to replace all the nation’s lead pipes, according to Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.). That funding is only 25% of the amount needed, Lawrence said, and half of it would come in the form of low-interest loans, which “many communities could struggle even to qualify for, much less pay it back.”

Pressure is also coming from the outside. On Wednesday, a diverse group of nearly 100 organizations in 28 states—including several chapters of the Sierra Club, the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, the Small Business Alliance, and chapters of the Working Famlies Party—sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urging more funding for lead pipe replacement, railway construction, and electric vehicle charging stations.

How to Change

DeFazio suggested the House could alter the Senate bill and then send it back to that chamber for final passage. He’s also talked about an informal conference between House and Senate lawmakers to work out differences between the bipartisan Senate bill and the one the House passed last month.

The House and Senate could also “ping-pong” the bill back and forth, with the Senate sending the House the bill, the House making changes, and then sending it back to accept, reject, or make a counteroffer. If the Senate rejected the House’s changes, the House would be under pressure to pass the original bill.

DeFazio said he’s been in touch with Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.), who’s leading debate on the Senate floor for the bill. While DeFazio said he raised the idea of a conference, Carper said the best path forward would be for DeFazio to get his priorities included in the reconciliation package.

Carper said lawmakers would be “somewhat constrained” because of a prior agreement that Democrats wouldn’t put infrastructure proposals that didn’t make the final bill into a reconciliation package.

“I wouldn’t suggest that this is a way to address all the concerns and priorities from our friends in the House, but I hope that we can invest in some of the most important ones,” Carper said in an interview.

‘Recipe for Disaster’

DeFazio isn’t alone in wanting to negotiate with the Senate. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also told reporters differences between DeFazio’s bill and the bipartisan Senate bill should be worked out in a bicameral conference but wasn’t optimistic such talks would happen.

“Conferences unfortunately have fallen a little bit by the wayside,” Hoyer said. “I think that is not good for quality of legislation.”

Convening a formal conference to combine the two infrastructure bills would be “a recipe for disaster,” said Jim Manley, who was a top aide to former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“Republicans have been very clear this is the bill that they signed on to,” he said. “If the House was to modify it [Senator Mitch] McConnell, I assume, could tell his caucus, ‘OK folks, this isn’t what we signed up for, time to bail.’ It’s a very high-risk strategy.”

Conferences also take time, which would run counter to President Joe Biden’s push to get the bill done quickly, said Michele Nellenbach, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“I understand the frustration of House members. If this goes, it is a once-in-a-legislative-career moment to pass an infrastructure bill and they want their say in it,” she said.

Whether the changes DeFazio and other House members seek are put into the reconciliation bill or inserted into the infrastructure package through informal meetings between the House and Senate, Manley said they ultimately will support passage of the measure.

“Despite all the posturing and hostage-taking going on right now, I cannot believe any Democrat is going to stand in the way of things getting done in the end,” he said.

Lillianna Byington in Washington and Stephen Lee in Washington also contributed to this story.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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