WASHINGTON – Even before President Joe Biden unveiled his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan Wednesday, congressional committees were laying the groundwork for a major public works investment with the goal of passage over the summer.
They've held hearings to listen to experts in the field and top-ranking administration officials. They've introduced scores of bills. They've asked lawmakers from both parties to submit their ideas for specific projects soon as Thursday.
And now the hard part begins, cobbling together an ambitious final product that can pass such an closely divided House and Senate.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited July 4 as the date she would like to have an infrastructure bill approved, but that deadline could slip to later in the month, she told Democratic lawmakers in a conference call earlier this week, a senior Democratic aide said Wednesday.
It’s likely that individual committees would advance their pieces of legislation and then a comprehensive bill would be assembled from that work, though the process for passing Biden’s plan hasn’t been settled. The aide was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and discussed it on condition of anonymity.
Various components of the sweeping plan will likely prove popular. Biden wants $25 billion put into improving the nation’s airports, $115 billion for bridges and roads in the most critical need of repair and $17 billion for ports and waterways, for example.
The Democratic chairmen of the committees overseeing potential roads, bridges and transit investments are aiming to pass a highway reauthorization bill — a key element of the infrastructure push — out of committee before Memorial Day.
To sweeten the prospects for bipartisan support, Democrats are offering lawmakers the chance to make their imprint through so-called earmarks, now being called “member designated projects,” which would dedicate some of the infrastructure spending to specific projects in their home districts and states.
Lawmakers can begin making their earmark requests starting Thursday with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is working on a roads and transit bill. The policy change — the use of earmarks had been banned in recent years — could enhance efforts to reach agreement on an infrastructure bill, but other factors, such as how to pay for it, will likely play a much bigger role.
Key Republicans and influential business groups are lobbying hard against Biden’s preferred method of paying for infrastructure largely by raising the corporate income tax rate to 28%. It had been at 35% before tax cuts enacted during Donald Trump’s presidency reduced the rate to 21%. Republicans don’t see the proposed increase as a middle ground.
“It’s called infrastructure. But inside the Trojan horse there’s going to be more borrowed money. And massive tax increases on all the productive parts of our economy,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday in his home state of Kentucky.
McConnell was peppered with questions about potential money, particularly for bridge repairs, but said he does not see this as a moment of bipartisanship in Washington.
Still, Democratic lawmakers and the White House are holding out the prospect for generating some bipartisan support even if that looks increasingly unlikely. Biden’s first major bill, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, got no Republican support.
“The American Rescue Plan was a little bit different, because it was an emergency. It was addressing an emergency that we’re still fighting our way through, right, getting the pandemic under control, putting people back to work,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on MSNBC. “This is a big jobs bill, but we have a little bit more time to negotiate, to have discussions, to hear if people have better ideas on either the proposals or how to pay for it.”
Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the House transportation panel, said that he hopes Congress will develop infrastructure legislation in the coming weeks that can gain bipartisan support but that the Biden plan is unlikely to do so.
“The president’s blueprint is a multitrillion-dollar partisan shopping list of progressive priorities, all broadly categorized as ‘infrastructure’ and paid for with massive, job-killing tax increases,” Graves said.
If Democrats are unable to get Republican support for the bill, then Democratic leaders are likely to turn to the same budgetary procedure used to get the COVID-19 relief bill passed with a simple majority in the Senate.
Administration officials sidestepped a question about whether Democrats would go that route, saying that Biden wanted to be clear that he's got a plan and he's open to hearing what others think, before adding that he is uncompromising about “the urgency of the moment."