Biden dispatches Cabinet members to sell infrastructure plan

Traffic on I-66 in Virginia
Greg Nash

Four members of President Biden’s Cabinet took to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to sell his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, pushing back on Republican criticisms that the plan was too large and wide-ranging.

In a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge advocated for the massive proposal by arguing for expanding the traditional definition of infrastructure beyond roads and bridges to include climate change, broadband, housing and child care.

“We draw inspiration from the New Deal’s infrastructure projects and President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, but we cannot afford to rely on the original version of the roads, bridges, and airports they built all those years ago,” Buttigieg said at the hearing.

Biden’s plan calls for significant spending on rebuilding roads and bridges, but also sets money aside for climate change policies such as modernizing the electric grid and building charging stations, retrofitting old buildings and homes, increasing the stock of public housing and expanding broadband.

“During the pandemic we have seen that high-speed broadband service is not a luxury, but a necessity for jobs, education and health care,” said Raimondo, noting that the cost of broadband service plans in the U.S. are among the highest in developed countries.

Republicans, who are expected to offer a far more limited counterproposal as early as next week, took aim at provisions of Biden’s plan they said extended beyond traditional infrastructure.

“The administration’s proposal, on the other hand, is so broad and ambiguous that it seems there is little, if anything, they do not consider infrastructure,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), vice chairman of the committee, adding that it “proposes to be all things to all people.”

Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a key GOP moderate, said the $174 billion spent on subsidizing electric cars and infrastructure outweighed the combined total spent on fixing existing transport.

“It’s certainly appropriate to look ahead and to accommodate future and cleaner modes of transportation, but what the administration is doing is spending billions more on subsidies related to electric vehicles than on the roads and bridges on which they will travel,” said Collins, who was part of a group of Republicans that offered a slimmed-down COVID-19 relief bill that Biden later rejected in favor of his $1.9 trillion measure.

Biden has also said he would like his infrastructure package to be bipartisan, but Tuesday’s hearing revealed deep divisions between the two parties.

In a particularly testy exchange, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) repeatedly pressed Regan on how much the plan would reduce global temperatures.

“I don’t have a figure in front of me that specifies how much, in isolation, this bill lowers world temperature based on just U.S. participation,” Regan said, adding that the effects would be just part of Biden’s expected Thursday announcement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and that it hoped to spur international cooperation as well.

“So we’re just going to spend $2.3 trillion and find out, on a wing and a prayer?” Kennedy retorted.

But both sides agreed on the need to address the nation’s “crumbling” infrastructure, especially when comparing spending to international competitors. The 2.3 percent of gross domestic product invested by the U.S. in its infrastructure is less than half of the 5.6 percent spent by China, the world’s second-largest economy.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), another key moderate who has pushed Biden to find a bipartisan solution rather than go it alone using a budgetary workaround to avoid a GOP filibuster, asked each of the witnesses what area in their purview had received the most bipartisan enthusiasm.

Buttigieg pointed to surface transportation, Regan toward water infrastructure, Fudge indicated upgrading existing public housing and Raimondo said the CHIPS Act, which would bolster domestic semiconductor manufacturing.

The path forward for the infrastructure bill remains murky, with or without Republican support.

Biden allies such as Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) have suggested that Democrats cut a deal with Republicans on a smaller, traditional infrastructure package, perhaps closer to $800 billion, and then pass the rest of their priorities through budget reconciliation.

Progressives, however, worry that separating the most popular provisions from many top climate and social priorities would sink the chances of a second bill altogether.

Republicans, as well as centrist Democrats such as Manchin, have said Biden’s proposal to raise the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent to pay for the $2.3 trillion plan is excessive. Manchin said he thought 25 percent was a more reasonable figure.

Concerns also remain among Democrats about what policies would be struck down by the Senate parliamentarian, who oversees the strict rules of the budget reconciliation process. Democrats were unable to pass a minimum wage increase in Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill because the parliamentarian ruled that it did not conform to the arcane rules.

Next week, Biden is expected to unveil details of yet another trillion-dollar package focusing on child care, paid family leave and other so-called social infrastructure priorities during his first address to a joint session of Congress.

Tags Cabinet members Chris Coons Gina Raimondo Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Kennedy Marcia Fudge Michael Regan Pete Buttigieg Richard Shelby Susan Collins

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