House passes $700B transportation and water bill, making its pitch on infrastructure

The House passed a more than $700 billion transportation and water infrastructure bill Thursday, a measure that stakes out the chamber’s position in a debate over how to rebuild the nation’s roads, transit networks, water pipes and sewers.

The package provides $343 billion for roads, bridges and safety programs, $109 billion for transit agencies and $95 billion for rail. It also includes $117 billion for drinking water programs and $51 billion for wastewater infrastructure. The bill passed 221-201, with two Republicans joining Democrats in support.

Much of the debate over infrastructure has played out between President Biden and negotiators in the Senate, who outlined a bipartisan plan last week. But Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said this week the spending envisioned in that bipartisan plan and the House bill were close enough that he saw the potential for an agreement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House’s Invest in America Act represents her chamber’s effort to seize a “once-in-a-century opportunity to rebuild America’s infrastructure,” while working to lift the middle class, help the environment and focus on equity.

The bill, written by Democrats, is weighted more heavily in favor of rail than the bipartisan plan, while pitching less for roads. DeFazio said he could support more money for roads and hoped that would encourage senators to back more money for trains.

“What their framework lacks is policy,” DeFazio said. “My bill is the transformative policy that the Biden administration wants.”

That is where aligning the dueling proposals could prove tricky. The White House has been aggressively promoting the new Senate framework, but also has endorsed the House bill. The two sides of Congress remain divided on how money might be spent and how central climate change should be to infrastructure investments.

Congress typically takes up transportation funding bills every five years or so, approving federal programs that send money to state agencies to fund roads, buses and rail lines. Those programs are set to expire on Sept. 30. But with infrastructure at the top of the White House’s agenda this year, the bill has taken on outsize significance.

In a sign of the delicate dynamics between the chambers, Pelosi praised the bipartisan framework while reiterating that a Senate bill embodying that framework would be taken up in the House only after specifics of a separate far-reaching budget bill with other priorities of President Biden’s are clear.

“Our caucus is very, very pleased with the bipartisan agreement that the president was able to achieve working with Democrats and Republicans in the Senate,” Pelosi said. “There are many good features to it in terms of numbers, but not policy.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is leading efforts to draft the legislative text to transform the bipartisan infrastructure framework into a bill. Senate aides said drafters are stitching together contributions from key Senate committees, including elements of bipartisan bills they have passed, as well as information from the 10 senators who reached the bipartisan deal, and the Biden administration.

Schumer has said he wants the Senate to consider both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the broader, partisan budget bill in July. Given the time frame, DeFazio on Wednesday suggested that Senate leaders rely heavily on the House bill.

“I said … it took my staff seven months to write the policy. I don’t know how quickly you can write policy over there,” DeFazio said. He urged drafters to “adopt significant portions” of the House bill and perhaps parts of bills passed by the Senate’s Commerce Committee and Environment and Public Works Committee, as well.

The House bill includes measures designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, holding states accountable for emissions on their roads, while promoting electric cars and buses. It would require states to consider alternatives such as transit before widening highways, and provides $14.5 billion for projects that would reduce carbon emissions or make transportation networks more resistant to extreme weather.

Transit funding is aimed at reducing a maintenance backlog and helping agencies provide more regular service. The bill proposes tripling funding for Amtrak to $32 billion and includes a grant fund that could be used to develop high-speed rail projects.

It also includes a $45 billion fund to replace all lead water lines across the country.

Wednesday night’s debate on the bill reflected partisan divisions and contrasting visions.

“Members on the other side have said they don’t want another traditional highway bill, but we can’t abandon our roads and bridges just to say we want something new. Our core infrastructure has become traditional because Americans depend on it to work and to travel and to live,” said Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, the Transportation Committee’s ranking Republican.

But Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., said the bill will both fix highways and “do something as new and as bold today as the interstate highway system was in the 1950s,” including investing in electric-vehicle charging and rail.

“And please don’t tell New Jersey commuters they’re riding the Green New Deal to work every day,” he said. “They just want better trains that will get there faster than they did 100 years ago.”

The White House issued a formal statement of support Monday for the Invest in America Act, saying it “lays a strong foundation for achieving the President’s vision on infrastructure.”

At the same time, Biden traveled Tuesday to Wisconsin to promote the bipartisan framework. The White House says that approach also would fulfill its goals of improving the environment and creating new jobs, but details of how the money would be spent haven’t been filled in.

He pointed to a $66 billion investment in passenger and freight rail that he said would “reduce the largest source of pollution in America: vehicle travel.”

“This deal also makes the largest investment in public transit in American history,” Biden said. “We’re not just tinkering around the edges here.”

Despite bipartisan support for increasing rail spending, leading Republicans have made it clear they oppose many of the environmental rules in the House bill.

“At every turn the majority has ensured that infrastructure programs become climate change programs,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Monday during a meeting of the House’s Rules Committee. “New environmental mandates, Green New Deal-like provisions will snarl construction projects. Provisions that prioritize mass transit over roads will force rural districts like my own to spend funding in ineffective ways rather than on the road improvements we so desperately need.”

For DeFazio, the environmental provisions are in many ways the heart of the bill. He pointed to this week’s heat wave that pushed temperatures in his home state above 110 degrees.

“I heard from my Republican colleague in [the Rules Committee] last night, ‘climate change provisions don’t belong in a transportation bill.’ Seriously?” DeFazio said. “The largest source of fossil fuel pollution in the United States is transportation.”

The version of the bill that passed the House does not include revenue-raising provisions typically included to help fund transportation spending. DeFazio said he expected they would be ironed out once the House and Senate began working together on a final version of the bill.

The bipartisan framework includes ideas on how to cover the cost, such as ramping up tax enforcement and reusing coronavirus relief money, but experts have questioned whether those proposals would bring in enough money.

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