President Biden will meet again today with members from both parties on infrastructure, amid growing signs that some key Democrats are open to Republican overtures to cooperate on parts of the White House’s $2 trillion push.
Today’s bipartisan White House huddle comes as the Senate prepares to take up a water projects package that both parties have touted as evidence that cooperation on infrastructure is possible (see related story).
The meeting also comes as Senate Republicans are assembling what Environment and Public Works ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) last week termed a "conceptual bill" focused on traditional infrastructure — including roads, bridges, wastewater, airports and broadband.
"I think that’s the sweet spot of where we can join together, and the American people can actually see us negotiate a package where we all believe very strongly in devoting the resources, the time and effort into modernizing our infrastructure across the country," said Capito.
She and other Republicans involved in the effort have floated a price tag of between $600 billion and $800 billion to be paid for via user fees instead of the corporate tax hikes Biden has proposed.
Several key congressional Democrats welcomed news of the GOP effort, including House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Pete DeFazio, who said he’s spoken to Capito.
"We had a good conversation," the Oregon Democrat told reporters last week. "That’s not an insignificant amount of money, particularly for the things she’s focused on."
EPW Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said Thursday he too had spoken with Capito and reiterated his "strong belief" for regular order, noting the success the pair has found on the water infrastructure bill.
"We’ve worked hard to put our water bills together," Carper said, hoping for similar luck with a highway bill he plans to move through the committee by Memorial Day.
"I’m interested in finding what works — do more of that," Carper said. "If we can move them as individual bills, let’s do that. If they need to be put into a package, whatever works. And I think it’ll probably work either way, but right now I’m interested in moving it as a stand-alone bill."
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, applauded Capito’s push last week. He suggested a deal with Republicans on bipartisan concerns and a separate bill with Democratic priorities, which would pass through budget reconciliation to avoid a Senate filibuster.
"It’s a strong approach that strikes me as a reasonable path forward that allows us to accomplish both a strong bipartisan infrastructure package and the rest of the total agenda that President Biden has laid out," Coons told reporters.
He defended his plan on "Fox News Sunday" yesterday, saying that it would benefit all Americans if the two parties worked together on areas of agreement.
"We’ve all agreed for a long time that we need to invest more in American infrastructure; we just disagree about how to pay for it," Coons said. "And I think in the next few weeks we should roll up our sleeves and sit down and find ways that both parties can support to make these critically needed investments."
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of Senate GOP leadership, appeared to endorse the bifurcated strategy yesterday as well.
"There is a core infrastructure bill that we could pass with appropriate pay-fors, like roads and bridges and even reaching out to broadband, which … this pandemic has exposed a great digital divide in this country," Cornyn said on "Fox News Sunday."
"I think that’s the part we would agree on," said Cornyn. "So let’s do it and leave the rest for another day and another fight."
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was noncommittal on Coons’ proposal last week but noted his friendship with the president and the respect with which the senator’s views are regarded within the White House.
"[T]here are a range of views on the Hill … about how this should move forward and what the size of the package should be and what components should go together," Psaki said last week. "We’ll let that all work itself through."
One aspect of Biden’s proposal — his call to spend $85 billion on public transit — is among those facing GOP headwinds.
During a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on transit last week, ranking member Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) noted that when emergency COVID-19 relief and annual appropriations are added up, Congress has steered $82 billion toward transit in the past year.
"By way of context, one might ask, well, what’s the annual cost of operating all of the transit agencies in the entire United States of America combined?" Toomey said at the hearing’s outset.
"Well in 2019, that was $54 billion. And yet we sent $82 billion in one year. If you add in the transit agency’s capital expenses to their annual operating costs, it’s still less than $82 billion. It’s staggering how much we’ve just spent."
Lawmakers, however, are also facing pressure to invest even more in public transit than Biden’s proposal.
A coalition of clean energy advocates last week urged Congress to spend at least $50 billion on cleaner buses — including $25 billion for the Federal Transit Administration’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Grant Program for the purchase of low- or zero-emission buses, and $25 billion for electric school buses.
Additionally, the coalition proposed a $20 billion annual operating support program to expand transit service, funding to address the $99 billion maintenance backlog for transit, as well as lifting the 20% cap of Highway Trust Fund transit investments to 50%.
Committee on both sides of the Capitol this week will continue to hold hearings on aspects of the Biden plan.
A quartet of Cabinet officials tomorrow will testify on aspects of the proposal — including climate change — before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Appearing before the panel are Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge.
On Wednesday morning, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States will hear testimony on infrastructure priorities for Indigenous communities.
Also Wednesday morning, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment will hold a hearing on sustainable wastewater infrastructure with a focus on boosting climate resiliency.
Schedule: The Senate Appropriations hearing is Tuesday, April 20, at 10:30 a.m. 106 Dirksen and via webcast.
- Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
- EPA Administrator Michael Regan.
- Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
- Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge.
Schedule: The House Natural Resources hearing is Wednesday, April 21, at 10 a.m. via webcast.
- Kevin Killer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
- William Aila, chairman of the Hawaiian Homes Commission.
- Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University.
- Walter Haase, general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.
Schedule: The House Transportation and Infrastructure hearing is Wednesday, April 21, at 11 a.m. in 2167 Rayburn and via webcast.
- Howard Neukrug, executive director of the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Kishia Powell, chief operating officer and executive vice president of D.C. Water.
- Robert Ferrante, chief engineer and general manager of the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.
- Kim Colson, director of water infrastructure for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
- Kevin Robert Perry, fellow at the American Society of Landscape Architects.
- Rebecca Hammer, deputy director of federal water policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.