Senate

White House trying to beat back bipartisan Cornyn infrastructure amendment

The White House is pushing back on a bipartisan amendment sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that would give state and local governments broad latitude to tap unspent federal COVID-19 relief money to use on infrastructure projects.

The amendment, which has Democratic support, would allow states to spend tens of billions of dollars in relief money allocated by the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed in March, to fulfill state matching requirements for federal-state infrastructure projects.

It would also allow state and local governments to use unspent COVID-19 relief funds provided by the CARES Act, which Congress passed last year, for infrastructure. 

If the amendment collects the support of 60 senators, it would mark a significant break with the White House, which negotiated for weeks with a bipartisan group of 10 senators to craft the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

The amendment could come up for a vote as soon as Wednesday afternoon and proponents think there's a good chance it will have sixty votes to pass. 

The White House has resisted giving state governments the power to use COVID-19 relief funds to pay for infrastructure - or to use federal funds to fulfill state requirements to put up their share of the money needed to access federal transportation funds, according to Republicans familiar with behind-the-scenes talk. 

But the proposal has strong Democratic support.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) has sponsored the amendment with Cornyn. And Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) are co-sponsors. 

"It would not limit it to [the] matching requirement but they could use it for that or they could use it for any other infrastructure project but it would be completely discretionary," Cornyn said of his amendment. "It would provide some more flexibility to state and local governments that find themselves, some of them, awash in money and they're trying to figure out how to responsibly spend it."

Cornyn said as of now the use of federal COVID-relief money is restricted. 

"It has to be COVID related," he said.

Cornyn said White House officials "want to keep the strings that were originally attached to it attached."

"They want to be able to call the shots out of Washington, D.C., but I think folks on the ground at the local and state level has a better idea about what their needs are than what Washington has," he said. "Plus the money is already in their bank accounts."

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The Cornyn-Padilla amendment has strong support from Republicans, including key GOP senators who are leading the infrastructure debate, such as Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). 

Proponents of the amendment point out that decisions by state and local governments to use unspent COVID-19 relief money on infrastructure would come on top of the $550 billion in new money for roads, bridges, rails and other priorities in the bipartisan bill. 

But the White House has resisted the idea during months of previous negotiations.

In her previous talks with the administration, Capito pushed for allowing states to use unspent COVID-19 relief money to help fulfill their matching obligations to draw down federal funds. The White House, however, has argued that COVID-19 funds should be reserved for needs associated with the pandemic, according to GOP lawmakers familiar with the talks. 

Cornyn has been in negotiations with the White House on his amendment and plans to file a new version of it "soon," according to a GOP aide. 

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