Infrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens
The coronavirus and its devastating effect on the economy is giving an old idea new traction with leaders in both parties: trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending.
President Trump on Tuesday called for $2 trillion in new public works programs as a national economic lifeline, backing an idea promoted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) just a day earlier. Rank-and-file lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have quickly joined the chorus, framing infrastructure as a commonsense strategy for creating jobs amid mass layoffs sparked by the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic.
“I think the Speaker’s right that infrastructure would be a good place to start because that’s something that’s the responsibility of the federal government to begin with,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said Tuesday on Fox Business, pointing to a bipartisan highway bill that a Senate committee advanced on a 21-0 vote.
“In terms of the recovery, yeah, I think there might be some things that we need to do. What I don’t want to do is to get out ahead of our skis and start making massive policy changes that reflect political extremes,” he added.
Infrastructure has been on Capitol Hill’s back burner for almost a year, after a brief and acrimonious White House meeting between Trump and Democratic leaders in May ended with the president lashing out at Pelosi and storming out of the room.
The fight was over the question of how the government would pay for a massive public works package — an onus Washington policymakers would likely sidestep as part of their multi-layered emergency response to the deadly coronavirus. Indeed, the three relief bills already enacted in recent weeks have not been offset by other changes to the budget, and Trump emphasized Tuesday that the crisis has created financial conditions advantageous for federal borrowing to underwrite major programs.
“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” he tweeted. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country! Phase 4.”
Before the coronavirus crisis hit the U.S., House Democrats had vowed to move an infrastructure bill through the lower chamber this year — an effort to make good on one of their central promises of the 2018 midterm campaign. But there was little evidence such an enormous package could land on the president’s desk in a contentious election year, and there are plenty of hurdles standing in front of a bipartisan deal even now.
The top two GOP congressional leaders — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — have been pumping the brakes on a phase four relief bill, saying Congress needs to gauge the effect of Congress’s most recent $2 trillion rescue package — signed by Trump just four days ago — before passing more aid.
“I think we need to wait a few days here, a few weeks, and see how things are working out,” McConnell said Tuesday on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.”
“I’m not going to allow this to be an opportunity for the Democrats to achieve unrelated policy items that they would not otherwise be able to pass,” he added.
McConnell’s office on Tuesday declined to say if infrastructure fit the “unrelated” category.
McCarthy, one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, said over the weekend: “I’m not sure we need a fourth package.”
Yet infrastructure is one of the rare issues that’s widely popular with voters of all stripes, and a boost in public works spending would provide lawmakers in both parties with a victory heading into November’s elections. That could prove particularly enticing to Republicans already wary of the “bailout” label being slapped onto Washington’s coronavirus response. And Trump’s glowing endorsement of infrastructure spending provides them plenty of cover to get on board.
Pelosi and Democrats are already behind the effort, and the Speaker has been making the rounds this week to promote the inclusion of a vast infrastructure component in Congress’s next phase of coronavirus relief. Such provisions would not only promote public health by increasing hospital capacity and providing safe drinking water, proponents argue, but would also goose the economy with a fresh demand for new jobs.
“In every way it is a giant plus and has always been viewed as such,” Pelosi told reporters on a conference call Monday. “So that’s why we believe that in terms of recovery, that’s probably the most bipartisan path that we can take.”
Democrats have a powerful ally in Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who has been pitching an infrastructure package to GOP leaders throughout the coronavirus response.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he’s in regular contact with the panel’s top Republican, Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), as Democrats draft key provisions of the phase four relief bill. As part of that package, Democrats want to include an expansion of broadband, as the pandemic has created a vast new reliance on telemedicine, for patients wary of visiting their doctors, and virtual education, amid widespread school closures.
“We’ve got to relook at this nation’s infrastructure,” Pallone said Monday, “and it links it to the coronavirus.”
That issue is on Trump’s radar as well. The president spoke Tuesday with leaders of the nation’s top network providers — including the CEOs of Comcast, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon — surrounding their efforts to meet the spike in demand.
Separately, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, is pushing for more funding for school construction, noting that the elementary school he attended more than 50 years ago is still open and operating.
“We need education infrastructure as well as all of the others,” he said.
An infrastructure package would have broad support from centrist Democrats and Republicans. In fact, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus — 24 House Democrats and 24 Republicans — had been pushing for “significant” infrastructure spending to be included in the $2 trillion phase three aid package.
“It’s certainly a very helpful injection of support to have the president behind what many of us have called for for years. The Problem Solvers Caucus has consistently, in a bipartisan way, supported significant investment in infrastructure,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who co-chairs the group with Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), said in a phone call from his home in hard-hit Bergen County, just outside New York City.
“Interest rates are so low,” he said, “that now is the time to borrow the money and make those investments.”