House Passes First Infrastructure Test With Highway, Water Bill

  • Floor vote was mostly along party lines on Thursday
  • Bill provides policy that Senate framework lacks, DeFazio says

The House passed an infrastructure bill Thursday that would direct more than $700 billion over five years for roads, railways, electric vehicles, and water, with Democrats set to use the policy to negotiate on a broader infrastructure package.

The bill (H.R. 3684), passed in a largely party-line vote of 221-201, faced opposition from Republicans who criticized climate provisions and a lack of funding measures. The passage comes a week after a bipartisan group of senators and President Joe Biden agreed on a separate, nearly $1 trillion infrastructure framework that includes baseline spending.

“This bill stands on its own, and it’s a very substantial part of the American Jobs Plan,” Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) told reporters this week.

But combining the proposals and coming to an agreement on how to pay for the legislation will be a heavy lift. Several authorizing committees in both chambers have jurisdiction over infrastructure, with different ideas for how to implement policy. Adding to the urgency is a Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize surface transportation programs, regardless of whether a larger infrastructure deal is cut.

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Photographer: Elizabeth Frantz/Bloomberg
DeFazio laid out plans for next steps at a Wednesday briefing with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

DeFazio said the House bill and Senate bipartisan agreement are “within shouting distance” on spending levels, but that the Senate proposal is only a broad outline that lacks any detailed policy proposals.

“What their framework lacks is policy. My bill is the transformative policy that the Biden administration wants,” DeFazio told reporters Tuesday. “A bill that addresses climate change, addresses social equity, includes communities that have been excluded before, rural America and others.”

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‘Urgency’ on Highway Bill

The transportation portion of the bill, totaling more than half a trillion dollars, would provide record spending levels for surface programs. DeFazio said the bill’s funding is close to what the Senate has proposed in its framework, with the exception of a disparity for spending on rail.

DeFazio this week emphasized the “urgency” of the Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize expiring programs and the added needs caused by the recent heat waves, which have caused asphalt to buckle and streetcar cables to melt.

The legislation would authorize an $8.3 billion program aimed at reducing carbon pollution, a $3 billion program to reconnect communities that were divided by highways, and significant funding for EV infrastructure. “Unlike past reauthorization bills, this legislation is centered around climate and equity,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said on the House floor.

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But those climate provisions and the lack of offsetting funding mechanisms have turned off Republicans. Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) called it “nothing more than a ‘Green New Deal’ in disguise.”

The House-passed legislation covers just a portion of a five-year surface transportation bill in the chamber. The Ways and Means Committee is tasked with writing the financing portion. Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said the bill is “completely unpaid for — something I have never seen in a highway bill in my two decades in Congress.”

DeFazio said pay-fors are “always a sticking point,” but that there will be ongoing dialogue between the Senate, the administration and the House on it after they “meld the policy and the numbers together on the Senate side.”

GOP criticism also stemmed from whether the House measure will become law, given the other moving pieces in the Senate. Four Senate authorizing panels play a role in surface transportation legislation. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced a bipartisan $303.5 billion measure (S. 1931) to reauthorize highway programs for the next five years in May, while the Commerce Committee approved its $78 billion safety and rail title (S. 2016) last month.

The transit title, from the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, and the funding title, from the Senate Finance Committee, haven’t yet been proposed. DeFazio blamed Banking Committee ranking member Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) “hatred of transit” for that panel’s inaction.

Amanda Thompson, a spokesperson for Toomey, said he is “very interested” in reaching an agreement on transit. “We just wish Congressman DeFazio had a little more respect for bipartisanship and a little less hatred for the taxpayer,” Thompson said.

Competing Water Levels

The House measure includes historic levels of investment for drinking and wastewater infrastructure.

The legislation would authorize $53 billion over the next decade for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and $40 billion through fiscal 2026 for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides low-cost loan financing to communities for a range of water infrastructure projects. The Clean Water fund has not been reauthorized since 1988, though appropriators fund the critical program each year.

The funds comprise the bulk of the water infrastructure investment in the bill.

The bill also would include another $45 billion to fully replace lead service lines throughout the country.

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But for a “transformative” infrastructure bill, the funding levels recommended for water do not match the Senate-passed bipartisan bill (S. 914), nor do they reflect proposed levels for the state revolving funds in the latest House appropriations bill for the EPA.

“I think there is a tremendous business case to be made for our numbers,” DeFazio said Tuesday, citing the projected $271 billion deficit in wastewater over the next decade. “I’ll be fighting hard for those numbers.”

DeFazio said he talked to Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) last week, but he doesn’t know “how it all fits together yet.” The Senate environment panel has jurisdiction over drinking water and wastewater in that chamber. In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure and Energy and Commerce committees split jurisdiction over water issues.

The House numbers are “completely out of touch” with the Senate bill, Graves said during floor debate. The Senate-passed measure would reauthorize the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds over the next five years at $14.7 billion each.

“We hope that any final drinking water infrastructure legislation agreed to by Congress this year is much more reflective of S. 914 than H.R. 3684,” Dan Hartnett, chief advocacy officer for legislative and regulatory affairs at the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, said in an email.

AMWA supports the House bill’s reauthorization of the Drinking Water fund and creation of a EPA Low Income Water Customer Assistance Program. It opposes provisions “that would overhaul EPA’s process for developing new drinking water contaminant standards, and removing opportunities for EPA to weigh the compliance costs of a new regulation against its anticipated public health benefits,” Harnett said.

Searching for Agreement

Lawmakers face hurdles on the policy, funding and timing issues as they work to finalize an infrastructure plan.

DeFazio said if the Senate wants to dispatch an infrastructure bill this summer, it needs to have an informal rather than formal conference to bring the proposals together.

“Substantial amounts of the policy in our bill should be negotiated by the White House and the Senate and the House to be part of that bipartisan proposal,” he said Wednesday. “It took my staff seven months to write the policy.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Kellie Lunney in Washington at klunney@bloombergindustry.com; Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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