Equilibrium & Sustainability

Top Democrat: ‘A lot of spin’ coming from White House on infrastructure

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) leaves the Capitol following the last votes of the week on July 1
Greg Nash

The leading House Democrat on infrastructure policy is leery of the message coming out of the White House as it races to rally support behind a major bipartisan spending deal.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, raised serious objections Thursday to the nascent agreement between President Biden and a group of bipartisan senators, saying it does little to address climate change and that House leaders should alter the bill if it gets passed by the upper chamber.

DeFazio emphasized that there are plenty of outstanding questions surrounding the $1.2 trillion package, the specifics of which are still being drafted into legislative language. But based on what’s been revealed, DeFazio said he has “tremendous concerns.”

“At this point, it looks anemic at best on climate change,” DeFazio told reporters just off the House chamber.

“The White House spun a number last night which is impossible: hundreds of billions for climate change. That totals more than what they’re offering,” he added. “I mean, there’s a lot of spin coming out of the White House.”

Behind DeFazio, the House passed a $715 billion water and infrastructure package earlier this month, with hopes that the Senate would use it as a template for their own proposal. But DeFazio has been harshly critical of the Senate process, saying negotiators in both the Senate and White House have dismissed some of the more transformative reforms featured in the House bill.

“I do not want to lock in the failed policies, the highway-centric policies, of the last century in a time of climate crisis,” he said. “And I … do not want to have a bill that does not deal with fossil fuel reduction from our largest polluter, which is transportation.”

The acerbic Oregonian ticked off a host of his early concerns Thursday, saying the Senate proposal has more money for highways than his bill does, thereby encouraging more driving — a leading contributor of carbon emissions; it has less money for rail and other public transit; and it shifts funding away from wastewater and drinking water improvements to programs replacing some — but not all — of the country’s lead pipes.

DeFazio is taking Biden to task for what he says is the president’s misrepresentation of the Senate provisions.

“The president says this will deal with all the lead pipes. No. That’s $45 [billion] to $50 billion, so it doesn’t deal with all the lead pipes,” DeFazio said. “And we have critical needs in wastewater and drinking water, so they shouldn’t be taking money out of that.

“Other than that, there’s very, very few details,” he added. “So we’ll wait for text.”

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

The concerns arrived just a day after the lead Senate negotiators — Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) — announced that, after weeks of talks, they’d reached an agreement on an enormous package to bolster the nation’s aging roads, bridges and water systems. Shortly afterwards, the Senate voted to advance the package, which is expected to feature $1.2 trillion for infrastructure projects over eight years, $550 billion of which will be new spending.

Given the fragility of the Senate talks — and the rarity of bipartisan consensus on major legislation in the polarized Congress — many Democrats are urging House leaders to stage a quick vote on the Senate package when it arrives in the lower chamber.

“Once the final infrastructure bill clears the Senate, the House should quickly take it up,” Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) said Thursday in a statement.

Yet House Democratic leaders are in much less of a hurry.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has vowed repeatedly that the House won’t vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill before the Senate also passes a larger Democratic package of social and environmental programs — a strategy that pushes any House vote to late September, at the earliest.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said this week that he’s hoping the House won’t just rubber stamp a Senate infrastructure bill, but will conference with the Senate to ensure that more provisions from the House proposal make it to Biden’s desk — the same strategy DeFazio has been pushing for weeks.

Pelosi has not said how she’ll handle an eventual Senate bill, emphasizing that no one has seen it yet. But she told DeFazio, in their last conversation, that the wait for reconciliation will allow the Transportation Committee chairman the entirety of the August recess to work with Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on possible changes.

Those senators head committees with jurisdiction over infrastructure, DeFazio noted, “as opposed to the three people who wrote the bill who know nothing about transportation,” referring to Portman, Sinema and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

DeFazio said he has been in touch this week with a host of senators involved in the current talks, including Collins and Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

That follows a discussion he had last week with Steve Ricchetti, a senior Biden adviser who’s been on the front lines of the talks.

“He’s listening,” DeFazio said. “And we provided paper, and we had a list of suggested — at least minimal — changes that they could make in the [Senate] bill.

“I have no idea if any of that was adopted.”

Tags Bill Cassidy Chris Pappas Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Maria Cantwell Nancy Pelosi Peter DeFazio Rob Portman Sherrod Brown Steny Hoyer Steve Ricchetti Susan Collins Tom Carper
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