Biden cheers House highway, water package as GOP balks

By Arianna Skibell, Hannah Northey | 06/29/2021 06:11 AM EST

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) during a Rules Committee hearing yesterday. Francis Chung/E&E News

House lawmakers yesterday began debating a sweeping $715 billion infrastructure package with the White House’s blessing as Republicans vowed to fight, warning the proposal is doomed to fail.

"At every turn the majority has ensured that infrastructure programs become climate change programs," Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, said as the panel prepared the bill for the floor.

The highway and water bills are the first big infrastructure proposals to hit the House floor. "Unfortunately," said Cole, "this first attempt is a partisan bill and quite a bit lacking."

Today, the Rules Committee will review hundreds of proposed amendments to H.R. 3684, which would allocate $343 billion for roads, bridges and safety, with about $4 billion of that going toward electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

It would slot $109 billion for transit repairs, including to scale up zero-emission vehicles and fleet conversions. It would further designate $95 billion for passenger freight and rail.

House Democrats are expanding the legislation to include a host of water provisions, including $51 billion for wastewater infrastructure and $117 billion for drinking water infrastructure and assistance (E&E Daily, June 28).

The White House released a statement of support, calling the package aligned with the administration’s goals to repair and rebuild aging infrastructure while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in and reconnecting marginalized communities of color.

"H.R. 3684 would reauthorize the U.S. Department of Transportation’s core programs that support investments in roads, bridges, safety, transit, rail, freight, and multimodal projects, and in research and innovation," the White House said. "The bill seeks to modernize and transform these programs with a focus on safety, climate, equity, and good-paying jobs."

In recent weeks, the White House pointed to progress on the highway bill as evidence Congress was acting on the president’s "American Jobs Plan" amid messy negotiations in the Senate.

The administration yesterday also made clear it fully backed provisions to upgrade and modernize water infrastructure and remove lead service lines across the nation.

‘Green New Deal-like provisions’

Republicans blasted the bill, complaining Democrats have broken a long-standing tradition of crafting bipartisan highway bills in order to favor environmental and climate change provisions.

"The majority is insisting on moving forward with their own partisan and deeply flawed bill, which we now know has no chance of becoming a law as is," Cole said.

"New environmental mandates, Green New Deal-like provisions will snarl construction projects," he said. "Provisions that prioritize mass transit over roads will force rural districts, like my own, to spend funding in ineffective ways rather than on the road improvements we so desperately need."

Rules Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said the climate provisions are precisely what make the "INVEST in America Act" strong.

"This bill is essentially a down payment on fixing our crumbling roads, bridges and highways; it scales up investments in clean energy and zero-emission transit vehicles, and makes bold investments in wastewater and drinking water infrastructure," he said. "I’ve got bridges in my district in Massachusetts that are older than most of your states."

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), a senior Transportation and Infrastructure member, said the Senate has demonstrated a bipartisan infrastructure deal and reprimanded House Democrats for "doubling down." Senators have also advanced bipartisan transportation and water bills.

But Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who had for weeks been swatting aside GOP complaints about partisanship, said it’s time to do away with the status quo.

"We can either lag behind the world and cede yet another evolution in our country of technology and transportation to China and other places, or we can be in the forefront," he said.

DeFazio said simply adding new highways will not help address climate change or the country’s crumbling infrastructure. He said in the last 25 years, 35,000 lane miles have been added in the 100 largest cities.

"That’s an incredible amount of pavement, and congestion is six times worse. It’s time to try something different," he said. "We used to be the envy of the world, now we’ve become the laughingstock."

‘Political theater’

Language from the House package on the floor this week may end up in a bipartisan infrastructure deal or in a Democrats-only bill approved through budget reconciliation.

DeFazio yesterday joined Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) in defending water provisions in the bill against a chorus of Republican assertions that the measure faces opposition from the water industry because it would balloon costs and leave rural areas behind.

Tonko said the language would boost infrastructure in low-income, vulnerable and Native American populations; tackle water affordability through a new EPA assistance program; provide more than $105 billion over 10 years for drinking water infrastructure; ensure EPA sets standards for drinking water contaminants; and provide grants to manage contaminants like "forever chemicals."

Tonko is a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Two of the water bills in the package — H.R. 3291 and H.R. 3293 — are from that panel. The wastewater measure, H.R. 1915, is from the T&I Committee.

Davis said Republican concerns haven’t been heard and warned the process playing out in the House — lengthy markups followed by limited floor debate — is "nothing but political theater." The wastewater bill, for example, turns its back on a previous bipartisan agreement.

McGovern said Democrats are listening to testimony and taking comments, and bills are moving to the floor to be debated. "We should refrain from that kind of characterization," he told Davis.