House passes $760B package, hoping to sway infrastructure debate

The House on Thursday passed a roughly $760 billion proposal to fund transportation and water projects that’s meant to shape parts of the broader infrastructure package — a top priority of President Biden — currently under discussion in the Senate and White House.

Lawmakers passed the legislation largely along party lines in a 221-201 vote with just two Republicans voting for the package.

Democrats hailed it as a monumental shift toward more sustainable infrastructure projects, with Republicans warning of lost jobs and a skyrocketing federal debt.

The bill “not only builds the infrastructure of America, but helps to rebuild the middle class,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “It does so in a transformative way.” 

The measure would reauthorize surface transportation programs that are set to expire on Sept. 30, as well as invest in liberal priorities like promoting electric vehicles, strengthening drinking water standards and making utilities more durable against the impact of climate change.

Thursday’s vote came as Biden is fighting to keep GOP senators on board with a bipartisan infrastructure framework while assuring progressives that a larger, Democratic-only package — expected to include elements of his economic agenda like subsidized higher education and paid family leave — is still on the way.

As the Senate and White House grapple over the particulars of their fragile agreement — a plan that has not yet been drafted into legislation — House Democrats are battling to ensure that some of their priorities find their way into whatever final product emerges from the talks. 

“This bill is designed to be a part of the president’s jobs bill. It is not a substitute for the jobs bill,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) emphasized this week.  

Democrats are hoping to use the legislation passed on Thursday to make it easier to include some of their priorities in the bipartisan package that’s still being negotiated.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) suggested that adopting some of the policies of the House package could help speed up the Senate process given the Democrats’ ambitious timeline for passing an infrastructure package, since his panel now has legislative language ready to go. Indeed, he’s urging Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to do just that. 

“[Schumer] would like to move quickly. And I said, ‘Well, it took my staff seven months to write the policy. I don’t know how quickly you can write policy over there. So I would suggest that you look at our policies and we adopt significant portions of those,’” DeFazio said.

Most Republicans voted against the bill, even though it included funding for specific projects — known colloquially as earmarks — that many had requested for their districts. 

The legislation includes funding for 403 projects requested by House GOP lawmakers, out of a combined 1,473 projects between the two parties.

Yet Republicans opposed the legislation on the grounds that it was overly partisan and costly.

“Voting for this bill is an implicit endorsement of the Speaker’s overall strategy to ram through a $6 trillion tax-and-spend plan,” said Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.), the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) compared the widespread GOP opposition to the transportation package on Thursday to their votes against COVID-19 relief earlier this year only to tout the benefits.

“I mean, hypocrisy is nothing new with the Republican conference,” McGovern said. “It’s the same people that voted against a stimulus package, and then went home and took bows for bringing money home to the district. It’s really cynical politics.” 

A bulk of the House package tackles surface transportation projects, with designs not only to bolster the nation’s aging roads and bridges, but also to impel a seismic, country-wide shift away from fossil fuel-based infrastructure programs — a leading source of ozone-depleting carbon emissions — toward mass transit and other more sustainable ventures that take into account a warming climate.

Toward that end, the bill features provisions discouraging states from leaning on highway expansions as their only strategy for relieving congestion; promotes a shift to zero-emission transit vehicles; expands transit to more rural communities; and includes around $40 billion for charging stations and other electric vehicle infrastructure.

Republicans have warned that the legislation, by steering away from existing industries like oil and coal, would cost the country countless jobs. Democrats reject that argument outright, saying the shift would not only create “millions” of new jobs in greener industries, it would also better prepare the United States to compete with other countries — not least of which China — in the race to lead the globe in energy, infrastructure and transportation technologies in the remainder of the 21st century. 

“The world is moving to electric. The corporations in America are moving to electric. But we’re stuck in the past,” said DeFazio. “So we can either let China capture another market from us … or we can compete — in fact we can lead again — like we did in the 60s and the 70s when our infrastructure was the envy of the world.”

“We were No. 1; we’re now No. 13, and falling fast,” he added, noting that China invests 6 percent of its gross domestic product to infrastructure, versus one-half of 1 percent in the United States. “We cannot afford to be absent from this debate anymore.” 

The package also includes two bills designed to ensure that all Americans have access to clean water. One is infrastructure-based, featuring tens of billions of dollars to replace lead pipes around the country while adopting tougher water quality standards nationwide. The second aims to help low-income people pay their water bills, making permanent a coronavirus-era water subsidy program and establishing a five-year moratorium on shut-offs by utility companies. 

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the legislation stems from the simple concept that “water is a basic, fundamental human right.”

“If you don’t make these investments — whether it’s in transportation, or whether it’s water — then you just get behind and everything falls apart,” he said. “The bottom line is that the states and the towns need help.”

Updated at 2:51 p.m.

Tags Charles Schumer clean water Infrastructure Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Peter DeFazio Sam Graves Steny Hoyer transportation bill
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