.House, Setting a Marker for Talks, Passes $715 Billion Infrastructure Bill

By Jonathan Weisman, The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday laid down its marker for this month’s infrastructure negotiations, approving a five-year, $715 billion transportation and drinking water bill that would do more to combat climate change than the Senate’s bipartisan measure embraced by President Joe Biden.

Democratic leaders see the bill as a baseline for talks with the Senate aimed at producing the largest investment in infrastructure since President Dwight D. Eisenhower began the interstate highway system. The House measure, which would authorize a 50% increase over current spending levels, passed by a vote of 221-201, largely along party lines, a break from past infrastructure bills and a mark of how polarized Congress has become.

It would devote $343 billion to roads, bridges and safety. Its $109 billion for transit would increase federal spending by 140%. An investment of $168 billion in funds for wastewater and drinking water includes a new program to forgive the unpaid water bills of Americans struggling through the pandemic, and then to help pay bills in the future, much as the government helps pay home heating and air-conditioning costs.

But with heat records being set from Arizona to Seattle, House Democrats emphasized the billions that would go toward electric vehicle charging stations, zero-emission transit vehicles and shoring up roads, bridges, tunnels and rail lines to withstand severe weather and rising seas driven by a changing climate. Funding for Amtrak would be tripled, to $32 billion, and high-speed rail planning would be underwritten.

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“We have to rebuild in ways that we never even thought about before,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, adding, “This is the moment. We have to be bold.”

Just how the House Democratic vision of infrastructure will be melded with the deal struck by five Republicans and five Democrats in the Senate is anything but clear. The House bill and the Senate deal are not far apart in spending numbers on traditional infrastructure. Both efforts take up Biden’s call to replace all of the country’s lead drinking water pipes.

But while the Senate framework only lays down broad categories of spending, the House bill extends surface transportation policies and user funds that are set to expire Oct. 1. It also establishes new policies like water bill assistance, “Buy American” requirements and a pilot program for low-income transit access.

“I‘m suggesting that substantial amounts of the policy in our bill should be negotiated by the White House and the Senate and the House to be part of that bipartisan proposal,” DeFazio said, adding that he was encouraged by the movement in the Senate.

Another wrinkle: It is the first bill in a decade to include home-district projects, known as earmarks, 1,473 of them totaling nearly $5.7 billion. House members in both parties will be loath to lose them.

One major thing missing in the House bill, however, was Republican support — even from those who won coveted projects for their districts. Only two GOP lawmakers, Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey, crossed party lines to support it.

House Republicans blistered the bill as overly political, slanted toward “green new deal” social engineering that would outstrip funds available from gas and diesel taxes and other user fees long dedicated to infrastructure spending. With many House Republicans denying the established science of climate change and rural lawmakers feeling shortchanged by the shift toward mass transit and rail, the bill did not get the bipartisan support usually afforded to such measures.

“There is no denying that Congress must take action to improve our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, but, sadly, bipartisan negotiations have hit a roadblock,” Rep. Ben Cline, R-Va., said. “Instead of focusing on traditional infrastructure, Democrats have chosen to prioritize the left’s Green New Deal agenda.”

Democrats, some of whom donned green baseball caps on Thursday emblazoned with the words “Green New Deal,” conceded that their bill was no ordinary pavement, bridge and tunnel measure. Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California called it transformative. But with roads buckling under the heat in Oregon, permafrost melting in Alaska and blackouts rolling across Texas, they argued it was time to shift the nation to a new, zero-emissions economy.

The climate provisions are substantial: $4 billion for electric vehicle charging stations, $8.3 billion for reducing carbon pollution and $6.2 billion to make infrastructure resistant to extreme weather. Answering Biden’s call for equity, the bill would dedicate $3 billion to tearing down bridges and overpasses that separate communities of color from their cities.

Republican leaders called it the “Green New Deal and Inflation Transportation Act,” and on one issue, they had a point. To avoid breaking Biden’s pledge not to raise taxes on middle-income Americans, House Democrats would not raise the gas tax to cover the increased spending from the Highway Trust Fund.

DeFazio said the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee would produce separate legislation later to pay for the infrastructure spending, but House Democrats voted for the spending without seeing the other side of the ledger.

Copyright 2021 The New York Times Company


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