Collins calls EV users ‘free riders’ ahead of plan rollout

By Nick Sobczyk, Geof Koss | 06/14/2021 06:17 AM EST

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is part of a group of senators looking for compromise on infrastructure. Francis Chung/E&E News

A key member of a group of moderate senators offering a new infrastructure package said yesterday that users of electric vehicles were "free riders" who should be forced to pay a fee.

Speaking about the plan on CBS’s "Face the Nation" yesterday, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that among the pay-fors for the bill "would be a provision for electric vehicles to pay their fair share of using our roads and bridges. Right now, they are literally free riders because they’re not paying any gas tax."

While the idea is embraced by many moderates, it has been rejected by the White House.

In addition, she said the bill would not raise the corporate tax rate or the federal gasoline tax. Instead, she said it would repurpose COVID-19 relief cash and create an infrastructure financing authority similar to the current state revolving funds for water.

Collins insisted that many states would be happy to have their funds clawed back. "I’ve talked to governors who are enthusiastic about the prospect, and when you have a state like California, which has an enormous surplus and yet we’re giving billions of additional dollars to that state, I think we can find room to repurpose some of this money," she said.

The group said it had reached an agreement late last week, and while they have not publicized their proposal, details emerged over the weekend. POLITICO and several other news outlets reported the group is proposing $1.2 trillion over eight years and $579 billion in new spending.

President Biden is now in talks with these 10 senators — five Democrats and five Republicans — the latest group to try to make a deal after talks with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) crumbled last week.

The proposal has an uncertain path forward. Many progressives and climate hawks are ready to call for an end to bipartisan talks, which they fear could lead Biden to drop his demands for climate legislation and a clean electricity standard as part of an infrastructure bill.

As talks continue, House and Senate committees this week will continue to lay the legislative groundwork for the infrastructure push, with a surface transportation bill slated for markup.

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said last week that he was convinced it was time to move on to budget reconciliation, the process that allows certain bills to bypass the filibuster. Wyden said the bipartisan proposal would not include Biden’s pay-fors of hiking the corporate tax rate and takes "a complete pass on climate change."

"That bipartisan idea doesn’t have anything on climate," he said on MSNBC on Thursday. "I think it’s a nonstarter."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is part of the bipartisan group, disputed the notion that their proposal would be silent on climate change, noting provisions to boost the resiliency of infrastructure as an example.

"If they’re looking for a line item that says ‘climate,’ they’re not going to see that," she told reporters Thursday. "If people actually look into the specifics, I think you will see that there is plenty there."

Climate tension

Wyden’s view nonetheless remains pervasive among progressives, several of whom have said they would not vote for an infrastructure bill sans significant climate provisions.

"There’s no avoiding the fact that a bill that is of the magnitude that we need can only be passed with 51 votes," Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told reporters last week. "The Republican Party is not coming to the table."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has backed a two-track approach to infrastructure — with one bipartisan bill and one partisan reconciliation package. But it’s unclear whether enough progressives would support that strategy and how it would mesh with surface transportation bills working their way through Congress.

The House passed a partisan $528 billion surface transportation measure out of committee last week, and leadership plans to bring it to the floor before the end of June (E&E Daily, June 11). Multiple Senate panels are at also working on their pieces of the legislation.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), another one of the climate hawks who has sounded the alarm in recent days, said he doesn’t want to "draw any particular red lines" about whether infrastructure should be passed in multiple parts or which specific climate policies need to be included.

"But if the climate piece isn’t addressed in a way that’s really robust, I think we will have failed," Heinrich told E&E News.

"I’m not doctrinaire about whether it’s one package or two, so long as we know that those pieces are actually going to get done," Heinrich added.

Heinrich was also skeptical that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would bless the current round of bipartisan talks.

"I think the White House should be realistic about what Mitch McConnell will allow his members to support," Heinrich said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), however, signaled that Biden won’t be willing to compromise on the progressive priorities in his infrastructure plan.

"I have heard him say with Republicans in the room, ‘Let’s figure out what we can agree on, on infrastructure. Let’s see if we can come to a reasonable amount of money to get that work done, but I have no intention of abandoning the rest of my vision about building back better,’" Pelosi said on CNN’s "State of the Union."

Floor vote, committee action

Meanwhile, both House and Senate committees are slated to consider bills that are seen as laying the groundwork for a larger package.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday will mark up legislation, S. 2016, to reauthorize surface transportation programs under the panel’s jurisdiction, which includes rail, freight, ports and safety.

The $78 billion measure unveiled by committee leaders from both parties last week includes $28 billion for rail and $27.8 billion for multimodal transportation grants over five years.

The markup represents progress over efforts to reauthorize transportation programs in the last Congress, when the Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously moved its own bill but other panels failed to act. That led to a one-year extension of current law, which expires Sept. 30.

Once other committees that have jurisdiction over surface transportation programs move their own bills, they will be packaged with the $350 billion highway bill that the EPW Committee passed unanimously last month (Greenwire, May 26).

Tomorrow the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on local infrastructure needs.

On the other side of the Capitol on Wednesday morning, the House Small Business Subcommittee on Underserved, Agricultural and Rural Business Development will hold a hearing on broadband, which has emerged as a rare area of agreement between the two parties on infrastructure. Among the panel’s witnesses is the president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee will review the Transportation Department’s fiscal 2022 budget request, with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg slated to testify.

Schedule: The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs hearing is Tuesday, June 15, at 10 a.m. via webcast.

Witnesses:

  • Daniel Horrigan, Akron, Ohio, mayor.
  • Cyndy Andrus, Bozeman, Mont., mayor.
  • Corey Woods, Tempe, Ariz., mayor.
  • Josh Parsons, Lancaster County, Pa., commissioner.
  • Brian Riedl, Manhattan Institute senior fellow. Schedule: The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee markup is Wednesday, June 16, at 10 a.m., in Russell 253 and via webcast.

Schedule: The House Small Business Subcommittee on Underserved, Agricultural and Rural Business Development hearing is Wednesday, June 16, at 10 a.m. in 2360 Rayburn and via webcast.

Witnesses:

  • Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectMaine Authority.
  • Dan Sullivan, president of Downeast Broadband Utility.
  • Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation.
  • Tim Waibel, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

Schedule: The Senate on Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee hearing is Wednesday, June 16, at 2:30 p.m. in Dirksen 192 and via webcast.

Witness: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Reporter Emma Dumain contributed.