Biden’s team prepares a broader budget package after virus relief


WASHINGTON (AP) – Looking beyond the $ 1.9 trillion COVID relief The bill, President Joe Biden and lawmakers are laying the groundwork for another top legislative priority: a long-sought boost for the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure that could meet Republican resistance at a high price.

Biden and his team have begun discussing possible blueprints for an infrastructure package with members of Congress, particularly attentive that recent struggles in Texas With power outages and water shortages following a brutal winter storm, it presents an opportunity for a deal on sustained spending on infrastructure.

Gina McCarthy, Biden’s national climate adviser, told The Associated Press that the deadly winter storm in Texas should be a “wake-up call” for the need for power systems and other infrastructure that are more reliable and resilient.

“The infrastructure is not built to withstand these extreme weather conditions,” said Liz Sherwood-Randall, assistant to the president for national security. “We know that we cannot just react to extreme weather events. We need to plan and prepare for them. “

A proposal from the White House could come out in March.

“Now is the time to be aggressive,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who knows the potholes.

In a conference call with state and local highway officials Thursday, he touched on the Trump administration’s often-promised and never-achieved mega-initiative on highways, bridges and the like.

“I know you are among those who are working and waiting more patiently, or perhaps impatiently, for the moment when Infrastructure Week will no longer be some kind of Groundhog Day promise, but will actually be something that generate generational investments, ”he said.

Much of America’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, public water and drinking water systems, dams, airports, public transportation systems, and more – is in need of major restoration after years of underfunding, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. . In its 2017 Infrastructure Report, awarded the national infrastructure an overall rating of D +.

Both houses of Congress will use their unsuccessful efforts to pass infrastructure bills during the last session as starting points.

Democrats approved a $ 1.5 trillion package in the House last year, but it got nowhere with the Trump administration and the Republican-led Senate. A Senate panel passed tougher bipartisan legislation in 2019 focused on reauthorizing federal transportation programs. It also erupted when the US turned its attention to elections and COVID-19.

Biden has spoken of larger numbers, with some Democrats now urging him to bypass Republicans in tightly divided Congress to address a broader range of lobbyist-driven priorities.

During the presidential campaign, Biden pledged to deploy $ 2 trillion. on infrastructure and clean energy, but the White House hasn’t ruled out an even higher price. McCarthy said Biden’s next plan will specifically target job creation, such as investments to boost “workers left behind” by the closure of coal mines or power plants, as well as communities located near refineries. pollutants and other hazards.

“He’s been a fan of investing in infrastructure for a long time, a long time, I should say,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “But he also wants to do more in providing care, help our manufacturing sector, do more to strengthen access to affordable health care. So the size, the package, the components, the order, has yet to be determined. “

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, recently told the White House that it is ready to use the budget maneuver known as reconciliation to pass a comprehensive economic recovery package with only Democratic votes. That prompted stern warnings from Republicans who have already closed ranks. against the Democrats’ COVID-19 relief bill.

West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican on the Senate Public Works and Environment Committee, said there is bipartisan support for ambitious infrastructure steps. But that “should not be extended to a multi-million dollar package that is littered with other ideologically driven one-size-fits-all policies that tie the hands of our states and our communities,” he said.

Capito will help craft bipartisan legislation on the Senate side.

Representative Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the AP that he envisions a comprehensive House package that will go beyond roads, bridges and public transportation.

He also hopes it will have money for water systems, broadband and the electric grid, to address a weak infrastructure that was exposed after the crippling blackouts in Texas.

You’re not ready to talk about overhead costs yet. DeFazio, D-Oregon, said it will be up to the Biden administration and the House Ways and Means Committee to figure out how to pay it off.

DeFazio said General Motors’ recently announced goal of being largely electric by 2035 demonstrates the need for massive spending on charging stations across the country. Biden campaigned on a plan to install 500,000 charging stations by the end of 2030.

“I’m totally willing to work with (the Republicans) if they’re willing to acknowledge climate change,” DeFazio said, “or if they don’t want to acknowledge climate change, they can just acknowledge that the semi-finals and EVs are a flood on the horizon and we have to get ahead of ourselves. “

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat from Michigan, voiced a similar sentiment, urging that strong action be taken on carbon emissions and vehicle charging stations to help achieve a “complete transition to electricity.” He also wants states to have more federal grants for infrastructure repairs after natural disasters and extreme weather.

At the Senate hearing where he spoke, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland said there is bipartisan support among governors to ease congestion, reduce red tape, leverage private sector investment, and ensure that projects can better resist cyberattacks and natural disasters.

Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the new chairman of the Senate Public Works and Environment Committee, said his goal is for his committee to pass an infrastructure bill before Memorial Day.

In the House, Representative Sam Graves, the top Republican on the transportation panel, said Republicans would be open to a bigger package as long as the national debt didn’t increase much.

But many lawmakers oppose an increase in the federal gas tax, a way to help pay for spending, while groups like the Chamber of Commerce argue against raising business taxes during a pandemic.

White House aide Cedric Richmond, a former Louisiana congressman, told state transportation officials that the president intends for most of the spending to be paid for, not added to debt. In part, this would be reversing some of the Trump administration’s tax cuts.

Ed Mortimer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said removing elements from last year’s infrastructure bill to renovate schools and low-income housing could lower the price, because the COVID relief measure passed by the House already has hundreds of billions of dollars. dollars for those purposes.

“Affordable housing, school construction, very commendable, but we’re not sure that’s a key focus that will get a bill passed,” Mortimer said.

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Yen reported from Austin, Texas. AP writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

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