Partisan divide narrows on water, transit funding

By Geof Koss, Kelsey Brugger | 07/28/2021 07:04 AM EDT

Senate negotiators said yesterday that they’re closing in on a bipartisan infrastructure agreement but are still haggling over funding for water projects and transit — two major sticking points that may cost the votes of key Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) remains focused on completing a bipartisan infrastructure deal and making progress on a budget reconciliation plan before recess. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate negotiators said yesterday they’re closing in on a bipartisan infrastructure agreement but are still haggling over funding for water projects and transit — two major sticking points that may cost the votes of key Democrats.

Several senators involved in the talks said yesterday that a fight over water funding had been solved. “I think that’s resolved — water is in good shape,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters. He signaled that the agreement would include $15 billion to replace lead pipes.

But Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has threatened to oppose the bill if the $35 billion water infrastructure package, S. 914, that passed the Senate in April is not fully funded, said yesterday he still wants more water funds in the bipartisan deal. The framework supporting the talks calls for $55 billion for water spending.


“We’re not where we need to be,” he said. “There’s been an effort to try to do better, and we’ll see where it is.”

Earlier in the day, Carper said he wanted to ensure that the bill includes the “significant increases” for drinking water and sanitation that were approved unanimously by the EPW Committee and later passed the Senate by an 89-2 margin.

“I want to make sure at the end of the day that the legislation that every state had input into and 89 senators voted for is fully funded,” he said.

Carper said he is continuing to press for the provisions in the Senate-passed bill instead of the $15 billion dedicated to lead replacement in the bipartisan talks, with an additional $6 billion in water grants for communities in need.

“I think we had a better approach, and the ideas were to double the money, and to provide flexibility to state and local communities,” he said last night, “And also we had equity in there, we established grant programs for our communities that just don’t have any money, they don’t have the ability to borrow money from this revolving trust. And that still hasn’t been addressed.”

A spokesperson for Carper last night said text for the bipartisan infrastructure framework had not yet been finalized and that there are a number of outstanding issues, including water, transit, climate and environmental justice. “Senator Carper still has concerns,” said the spokesperson.

Several senators involved in talks yesterday confirmed transit funding remains unresolved. Senate Banking Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Carper have been pressing to at least maintain the 80-20 split that transit currently receives under federal transportation programs, with roads and bridges receiving the lion’s share.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said yesterday that transit is still a “major issue.” “The Republicans have made an extraordinarily generous transit offer, that when you add everything together it’s like an 83% increase in transit funding, which is unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” she told reporters.

Carper said yesterday he was “modestly encouraged” by the movement on transit. “We’re not there, but I’m encouraged,” he told E&E News.

More than 60 House Democrats yesterday called the traditional 80-20 formula for splitting highway funds inadequate and demanded the chance to “build on the Senate’s proposals and deliver the investments that match the scale of our communities’ needs.”

“If we are serious about mitigating climate change and ensuring equitable access to economic opportunity, we cannot keep prioritizing highways over transit — and therefore the 20 percent status quo must go,” wrote the Democrats, led by Reps. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) and Hank Johnson (D-Ga.).

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of EPW, said the flaps over water and transit funding stem in part from the fact that committee leaders have been sidelined by the “unusual” process being used by the bipartisan group.

Committee chairs and ranking members are “not engaged in this, and there’s going to be a lot of mistakes that are being made,” he said. “Will it affect my support? No, but it’s still issues that are not right and we’re raising those and water is a good example, but there are many others.”


Permitting pushback

Green groups are lamenting that the package includes provisions they say would undercut environmental scrutiny and public input, which they see as contradicting environmental justice goals that President Biden has elevated to the highest levels of government.

They expressed frustration that centrist Democrats appear to be on track to sacrifice permitting and review required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Yet they remain hopeful the House would still be able to scrub out what they see as the most egregious elements.

“My larger sense at the moment is that Dems are sort of holding their nose at a lot of bad provisions in this package because they see it as a necessary evil to get to the reconciliation package they care about,” said Brett Hartl, a lobbyist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Who knows what the fate of either bill is at this point?”

CBD and eight other big environmental organizations wrote a letter on July 16 to congressional leaders outlining what they see as several worrisome provisions currently in the package. Those include lifting the sunset on FAST-41 — an idea backed by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), top bipartisan infrastructure negotiators.

The provision would reauthorize a tiny but powerful agency that fast-tracks environmental permitting for major federal projects. The agency, the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, elicited pushback from greens during the Trump years for trying to advance mining projects and oil pipelines as well as renewables.

Now President Biden has tapped Christine Harada — once Obama’s sustainability officer — to lead the office, but reservations among greens persist. “By design, the whole point is not to get to better outcomes, it’s to get to faster outcomes,” Hartl said.

A Democratic aide maintained that Carper has opposed reauthorizing FAST-41. But the aide did not respond to follow-up questions about the current framework (E&E Daily, July 14).

The green groups also asserted the transportation bill as well as Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) “Energy Infrastructure Act,” S. 2377, contains “sweeping erosion” of NEPA and other waivers for environmental reviews.

One amendment, for example, from Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), would nix NEPA application for emergency situations, even though existing rules already allow for alternatives during disasters, the greens argued. Other sections would do away with NEPA reviews for certain pipelines and generally give more power to states.


Weekend plans?

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) reiterated his optimism about the bipartisan talks yesterday, though he added that there are “a bunch of issues still outstanding.”

“We’re making good progress on both tracks — the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the budget resolution with reconciliation instructions,” Schumer told reporters.

If they can strike a deal, Schumer added, the Senate could work through the weekend to ensure lawmakers wrap up both the bipartisan bill and the budget resolution before the August recess.

Romney sounded an optimistic tone yesterday for the prospects of a second procedural vote to kick off the infrastructure debate in the coming days, after GOP objections sank Schumer’s first attempt last week.

“We’re ironing out the legislative language, but it looks pretty good at this stage,” he told reporters.

Reporters Nick Sobczyk and Hannah Northey contributed.