Biden Meets With Bipartisan House Members on Infrastructure

President Joe Biden hosted an Oval Office meeting yesterday with a bipartisan group of House members to discuss infrastructure legislation, but not only did no plan emerge (to be expected), after the meeting there was no clear sense on whether or not bipartisan legislation would be possible.

In addition to Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (in person this time, not virtually), the meeting included:

  • Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and full committee ranking member Sam Graves (R-MO);
  • Highways and Transit Subcommittee chairman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and subcommittee ranking member Rodney Davis (R-IL); and
  • Rank-and-file T&I members John Garamendi (D-CA), Sharice Davids (D-KS), John Katko (R-NY), and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA).

DeFazio, Graves, Norton and Davis were there ex officio as the “Big Four” who, traditionally, are supposed to draft the T&I Committee’s highway and transit reauthorization legislation together. Graves clearly brought Katko and Fitzpatrick because they represent two of the bluest districts represented by any Republican (both seats voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016) and need to be seen as bipartisan. Davids represents Kansas, and even though her vote margins in 2018 and 2020 were solid, it’s still Kansas, where the idea of bipartisanship is also prized.

As for what happened in the meeting, we have three public versions. The White House’s official readout is predictably bland, calling the meeting a “constructive conversation” and stating “The President, Vice President, Secretary, and Members of Congress discussed their shared commitment to working across the aisle to build modern and sustainable infrastructure in rural, suburban, and urban areas across the country that create good-paying, union jobs and support the economic recovery. They also shared their commitment for ensuring new and existing infrastructure is modernized to withstand the impacts of climate change while creating jobs with the choice to join a union and leading the world in a clean energy revolution. Additionally, they emphasized the Administration’s commitment to creating skilled-trades jobs across construction, manufacturing, and engineering sectors, fulfilling our obligation to working communities too often left behind, and positioning America to compete and win the 21st century.”

DeFazio put out a short statement calling the conversation “critically important” and announcing that “I intend to move a surface transportation reauthorization bill through the Committee this spring…It is time to get out of the 1950s and move forward on a transformational infrastructure bill that puts millions of people to work building the infrastructure of the 21st century and beyond all while putting our country on a path toward zero pollution.”

(DeFazio also told the White House press pool that President Biden “wants us [Congress] to take the lead as we develop” infrastructure legislation, which may have come as a surprise to White House and DOT staff.)

But Graves issued his own statement, saying that in the meeting, he had made clear that the Administration and the Democrats in the House needed to take Republican priorities seriously, which he said they did not do when they put together last year’s reauthorization bill. Specifically, Graves said, ”

First and foremost, a highway bill cannot grow into a multi-trillion dollar catch-all bill, or it will lose Republican support.  We have to be responsible, and a bill whose cost is not offset will lose Republican support.

Second, a transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill that primarily focuses on fundamental transportation needs, such as roads and bridges.  Republicans won’t support another Green New Deal disguising itself as a transportation bill.

Last, equity for rural America is a top Republican priority.  Rural infrastructure needs cannot be left behind, and we cannot continue to allow a growing disparity between resources provided to urban and rural communities, as we saw in the $30 billion transit funding portion of the Majority’s recent COVID-19 package.

Since Republicans controlled the Senate and the White House in 2020, the mammoth Democratic infrastructure bill (H.R. 2) that came up in the House was never intended to become law – it was an omnibus “messaging bill.” But now that Democrats hold the political trifecta, those calculations no longer work, and legislation has to be crafted in such a way that it can either get Joe Manchin (D-WV) on board to get to the 50th Senate vote, or to get Manchin plus ten Republicans on board to get to 60 and break a filibuster.

After the meeting, DeFazio told the White House press pool that “We will look at modifying the bill we passed in the last Congress” (H.R. 2) when moving a new surface transportation bill forward. But that bill was so universally decried by the GOP, and not just because of its huge scope but because climate change was so central to every facet of the bill.

Getting House Republicans (and Senators like Manchin) on board will mean changing last year’s bill by enough so that the R’s and Manchin can plausibly claim that it is no longer “another Green New Deal disguising itself as a transportation bill” but keeping last year’s bill intact enough so that the dominant progressive wing of the House Democratic Caucus still supports the legislation. This will not be easy.

Two other points:

  1. It is interesting that the chair and ranking member of the T&I Railroads Subcommittee were not in the meeting. After years of keeping passenger rail legislation out of the highway-transit bill, the FAST Act of 2015 combined the two. Passenger rail is an inescapably high priority of both President Biden and Secretary Buttigieg, which makes us wonder if there will be a separate bipartisan rail meeting later on, and also if rail will be included in the highway-transit bill or be done separately.
  2. Before the White House meeting, DeFazio went on CNBC and suggested that the revenue “pay-fors” for infrastructure legislation be included in the (partisan) fiscal 2022 budget reconciliation bill later this spring, and then the (bipartisan) infrastructure bill come along later and spend the money. This is a clever way to split the baby on partisanship, but we have consulted our budget process gurus again to make sure we were right the first time, and we were – you can raise all the general revenues you want in reconciliation, but depositing those revenues in the Highway Trust Fund, or any other trust fund, would violate the Senate’s “Byrd Rule” and would require 60 votes, not 50, in that chamber. You can use reconciliation to increase the five taxes that are already dedicated to the HTF by underlying statute (gasoline, diesel, truck/tractor/trailer sales, tires, and heavy truck use), but you can’t use reconciliation to transfer any existing tax from the general fund to a trust fund or to levy a new tax that is dedicated to a trust fund.

 

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