Senate GOP crafts outlines for infrastructure counter proposal
Senate Republicans on Tuesday discussed the outlines of a scaled-down infrastructure bill they say could pass the Democratic-led Congress with strong bipartisan support.
The entire Senate GOP conference during its weekly lunch meeting discussed the emerging proposal after getting a briefing from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Capito is leading negotiations among a smaller group of GOP moderates who met with President Biden earlier this year. The group held a meeting late afternoon Monday to narrow Biden’s proposed $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan into something in the range of $600 billion to $800 billion.
They say it should be paid for with a combination of user fees, repurposing some of the $350 billion sent out to state and local governments in the American Rescue Plan and other revenue-raising measures. It’s unlikely Democrats will back these offsets.
GOP lawmakers contend the Republican counteroffer will be limited to traditional infrastructure priorities, such as roads, bridges, ports and airports, as well as newer priorities such as water infrastructure, expanded broadband and modernization of the electric grid.
“We’ve been talking about it at lunch. Shelley has been giving reports about what she’s working on,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters after the lunch. “We’re open to a more modest and targeted infrastructure bill.”
Senate Republicans are growing more comfortable with the prospect of passing a bipartisan $600 billion to $800 billion infrastructure package even as Democrats are expected to use budget reconciliation later this year to pass the rest of Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure agenda with only Democratic votes.
“There is a core infrastructure bill that we could pass. … So let’s do it and leave the rest for another day and another fight,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close McConnell ally, said on “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend.
He added Republicans are ready to work with Democrats even if Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) will use the reconciliation process later this year to pass the parts of Biden’s agenda that they don’t agree with.
It’s a change in tone from earlier this year, when Republicans said they weren’t going to “take the bait” of working with Biden on a scaled-down bipartisan infrastructure package if Schumer was going to follow it up with a $1 trillion to $2 trillion package that passes only with Democratic votes through the budget reconciliation process.
“If they decide to do that as a ploy to lure Republicans in to vote for the easy stuff and then do all the controversial stuff through reconciliation, I don’t think our guys will take the bait on that,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said in March of scaled-down package focused on traditional infrastructure.
On Tuesday, Thune said he now sees “a pathway” to reaching an infrastructure deal with Biden and Schumer.
“She’s got a pretty good definition [of infrastructure], put some numbers as to what it would look like and some ideas about offsets,” Thune said of Capito’s outline of a GOP counterproposal to Biden’s infrastructure plan.
The offsets include repurposing a chunk of the $350 billion to state and local governments Congress approved last month so that states can use the money on infrastructure, Thune said.
He noted there’s also money in the Highway Trust Fund from the gas tax and “user-fee oriented proposals” as additional revenue.
“There’s a pathway there, and if the Democrats would be willing to negotiate on something like that, there could be a deal,” Thune said.
While the chances of a big bipartisan deal on infrastructure are slim, party leaders on both sides of the aisle have said they want to iron out a compromise. As the minority party, Republicans want to avoid Democratic criticism that the GOP is the party of “no.”
Something that key Republicans are ruling out, however, is an increase in the gas tax, which Biden has signaled he does not favor.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who is in talks with Capito and other Republican colleagues, said the proposal to raise the gas tax is “dead.”
“The president has said he’s absolutely against it, so it’s dead,” Cassidy said. “If he’s against it, it’s not going to happen.”
He said he’s more interested in “what is practical.”
Thune confirmed Tuesday that raising the gas tax doesn’t have much support in the GOP conference even though influential business groups have embraced the idea.
Something Republicans are looking at seriously is a way to assess fees on electric vehicles that create wear and tear on the highways without paying for it through the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993.
GOP lawmakers finding agreement on a way to pay for a $600 billion to $800 billion infrastructure package is the biggest obstacle to get a deal.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee deadlocked in the last Congress over finding ways to pay for a $287 billion, five-year transportation infrastructure bill that passed out of the Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously in 2019.
Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the ranking member on the Finance Committee, said the Obama White House and Congress “flatly rejected” a proposal by the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission in 2012 to raise the gas tax by 15 cents a gallon.
“Since that time, I have not seen or heard much support for doing that,” he said.
Crapo said the Finance Committee had worked unsuccessfully for “six or eight years” to come up with funding for the 2019-2020 infrastructure package.
“One of the reasons nothing came out of those discussions was there’s a lot of difficulty coming up with bipartisan support for different revenue options,” he said.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, pointed out that Biden doesn’t want to raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year.