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Biden dispatches Cabinet members to sell infrastructure plan

Biden dispatches Cabinet members to sell infrastructure plan
© Greg Nash

Four members of President BidenJoe BidenPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE'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 ButtigiegPete ButtigiegButtigieg: Bipartisan deal on infrastructure 'strongly preferred' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican | Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack | Texas gov signs bills to improve power grid after winter storm Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican MORE, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael ReganMichael ReganEPA to reconsider Trump decision not to tighten soot air quality standards GM asks for flexibility in meeting emissions target EPA to revise Trump rollback to water pollution protections MORE, Commerce Secretary Gina RaimondoGina RaimondoOn World Oceans Day, we need a sea change Biden administration launches supply chain task force to tackle disruptions On The Money: White House sees paths forward on infrastructure despite stalled talks | Biden battles Dem divides | FBI seizes bitcoin ransom paid by Colonial Pipeline MORE and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeOn The Money: Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal, warn of time crunch Progressives relish return to in-person events On The Money: Key takeaways from May jobs report | Biden rejects new GOP infrastructure offer as talks drag on MORE 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.

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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 ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Bipartisan group reaches infrastructure deal; many questions remain Shelby backs ex-aide over Trump-favored candidate in Alabama Senate race SEC removes Republican watchdog after progressive lobbying effort MORE (R-Ala.), vice chairman of the committee, adding that it “proposes to be all things to all people.”

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin White House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain Bipartisan Senate group announces infrastructure deal MORE (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.

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“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 KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (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 ManchinJoe ManchinWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin Simmering Democratic tensions show signs of boiling over Out-of-touch Democrats running scared of progressives MORE (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 CoonsChris Andrew CoonsOvernight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Bipartisan senators introduce bill to protect small businesses from cyberattacks China conducts amphibious landing drill near Taiwan after senators' visit MORE (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.