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As senators scramble to finalize and begin debate on bipartisan infrastructure legislation, a separate battle over the forthcoming bill looms in the House.
Democrats are growing increasingly frustrated about what’s likely to be left on the cutting room floor, with progressives in the party slamming the Senate deal at a Tuesday afternoon rally. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) called the Senate bipartisan agreement “woefully inadequate.” House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said that at a meeting with committee Democrats on July 19, “there wasn’t a single one who said they want to move forward with a status quo bill.”
A major issue for House Democrats is the provisions on fossil fuel pollution and carbon reduction that were part of a wide-ranging infrastructure bill (H.R. 3684) they passed earlier this month, over Republican objections. That legislation included more than $715 billion in spending for surface transportation and water infrastructure.
DeFazio touted at the time that the policy specifics included could fill in the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure framework. Now, after learning the Senate bill would leave out the environmental and other policies, he’s rallying his party to demand their inclusion.
“Now it is going to be a lot more people chiming in and saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to change the ways we are doing things. Don’t lock us into the failed policies of the past,’” DeFazio said in an interview. “I’m going to push hard.” He made a similar plea in a “Dear Colleague” letter on Tuesday to lawmakers.
The push against the bill is quickly becoming a headache for House Democratic leadership. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) praised DeFazio’s bill but acknowledged that making even a few changes to the Senate’s package risks the crucial support of already-tentative GOP senators.
“We’ll have to look at what the Senate has done and make a judgment: Is that good enough, at least as a start?” Hoyer told reporters. “Right now a large number of House members do not believe it is.”
Both Hoyer and DeFazio said they would be open to hashing out the differences between the bipartisan Senate bill and the House bill in a conference, but Hoyer said a 50-50 Senate split by party meant they were playing “a different ball game.”
“Ultimately, we will deal with the art of the possible, not the art of the preferable,” Hoyer said.
DeFazio said he will continue to press House leadership, the White House, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to include stronger policies on fossil fuel pollution, carbon reduction, and safety in the bipartisan bill.
He might not have much time. Schumer was preparing to begin debate on the infrastructure bill on Wednesday, although text of the legislation has yet to be released and there’s a possibility the vote could fail. Republicans pushed him to delay the vote until next week.
Schumer said if there isn’t a deal by the bipartisan group in time, he’d prepare an amendment with legislation already approved by Senate committees. That would include the Environment and Public Works’ water infrastructure (S. 914) and highway bills (S. 1931); Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s rail and safety bill (S. 2016); and an energy infrastructure bill. Progressive groups have criticized the surface transportation bills in the Senate for not going far enough on safety and climate.
In the Tuesday “Dear Colleague” letter, DeFazio highlighted the major funding differences in the Senate and House’s bills proposed amount to electric vehicle infrastructure, passenger rail, transit, and climate.
“We should reject any effort to categorically exclude the thorough, transparent, and transformational process undertaken by the House,” wrote DeFazio, who also wants to make sure that the House bill’s earmarks make it into the legislation.
There’s also issues brewing on the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package containing the priorities Democrats were unable to get into the bipartisan infrastructure plan. Senate Democrats have yet to hammer out a deal they all can agree to, and House members are beginning to press leadership to let them go first.
The reconciliation package is poised to include several major environmental initiatives, such as a climate conservation corps and a clean energy standard. But DeFazio said the reconciliation bill focuses on pollution from the power sector, rather than from transportation.
He said he’s not on board with House leadership’s suggestion that they take what the Senate agrees on.
“I’m not taking it,” DeFazio said during a press conference Tuesday. “We cannot miss this opportunity to deal with safety issues in a meaningful way.”