At the beginning of this year, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito appeared poised to take the gavel of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. But when two Senate races in Georgia upended that possibility, she became something else: the go-to deal-maker for Senate Republicans on infrastructure.
In just 24 hours last weekend, the benefits and disadvantages of that role became evident. Capito had a win on Saturday when she and Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, the EPW chairman, announced they had reached a deal on a five-year, $303.5 billion highway bill to be marked up Wednesday.
That came one day after the West Virginia Republican disappointedly left a negotiation between Senate Republicans and the White House on a larger infrastructure package. The administration’s counteroffer of $1.7 trillion to the $568 billion she and Republicans had offered was still too costly, the GOP lawmakers said.
Still, “I’m not ready to call it quits” on a larger infrastructure package, she told reporters Monday. “I can tell you that.”
On Tuesday, she and her colleagues regrouped, saying they were preparing a counteroffer to present to the White House on Thursday morning. Capito would not reveal a topline number, but Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said $1 trillion was a number Republicans could agree to. “We can do that,” he said.
Low-key and pragmatic, Capito, 67, is conservative enough to be respected by former President Donald Trump but appears to have no interest in abandoning the notion of bipartisan negotiation. Her deal-making may be genetic; her father, former West Virginia Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr., was a Republican in West Virginia during an era when Democrats were politically dominant in the state.
“I’m a doer,” she said. “I want to get things done.”
When infrastructure talks began in earnest this year, Capito said it felt natural for her to step forward. Environment and Public Works has jurisdiction over highways, which she calls an “anchor” of U.S. infrastructure. “I have the data, I have the staff,” she said, saying she came to the role with the resources to take it on.
She was hopeful after the first two meetings, particularly after a meeting with President Joe Biden. He jokingly referred to “West-by-God-Virginia,” and she said she got the sense that he was eager to negotiate.
But that momentum sputtered after he let his staff take over, said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.
“I think that the negotiators for the administration actually moved us backward,” he said. “So that was pretty disappointing.”
On Friday, Capito’s disappointment with the White House’s counteroffer was evident in her staff’s terse statement saying that “the groups seem further apart after two meetings with White House staff than they were after one meeting with President Biden.”
“The progress that we made with the president is what we were focused on,” Capito said. “And we can’t seem to quite get that coming back to us in our meetings with staff.”
Capito acknowledges that her desire for a deal is anathema to some in her party, who would prefer to see Biden fail.
Her decision to step forward, she said, “was really driven by the fact that we need to be for something,” she said. “It’s easy to shoot darts at what the president wants, but tell us what you’re for.”
Along with Sens. Toomey; Wicker; Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee; Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Senate Republican Policy Committee chairman; and John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking member of Energy and Natural Resources, Capito crafted a two-page framework with topline numbers on highways, airports and other “built” infrastructure. When she brought it to the Senate Republican Conference, they “rallied around it.”
“So here I am,” she said. “And the president and White House are reaching out to me as a leader. It’s a position I embrace.”
“She’s done very well,” said Blunt. “She would like to find a way to work together on this. And I think she’s going to continue to work to do that as long as there’s some hope we could get to a positive place.”
Capito, said Ed Mortimer, vice president of transportation and infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is a “workhorse.”
“She’s more into the minutiae of working the legislative process,” he said, adding that “Democrats and Republicans respect her and view her as an honest broker in these negotiations.”
“She’s really quite remarkable,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, the ranking Republican on EPW’s subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “I think she’s emerged as sort of a new leader, if you will, for some people.”
Capito’s chairman, Carper, meanwhile, describes their partnership as “a very good working relationship.” The two have bonded over the fact that Carper was born in West Virginia.
That Capito is from West Virginia gives her some credibility on infrastructure. The state was built in part thanks to the largesse of former Sen. Robert Byrd, an appropriations committee chairman who sent billions of dollars to his state and whose prolific earmarking earned him enough gratitude that a highway, a bridge, two courthouses and a prison are among West Virginia landmarks that bear his name.
“People want to see their tax dollars being used for things that benefit them,” Capito said. “That’s where infrastructure really shows and shines.”
West Virginia’s gaps
Even with Byrd’s infrastructure legacy, the needs remain vast for one of the poorest states in the country, where the poverty rate averaged 14.9 percent in 2018 and 2019 compared to a 10.9 percent rate for the U.S. overall over the same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Access to broadband data, Capito said, has “big gaps,” and water systems in the state also have stark needs. The state’s infrastructure received a “D” grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, with wastewater, bridges, drinking water and roads all receiving a D-plus or straight D.
Despite the conservative leanings of the state, which gave Trump 68.6 percent of the vote in 2020, constituents urge her to work for a bill.
“Joe Biden lost by an enormous amount in my state,” she said. “And I didn’t get one single comment that said, ‘Yeah, stick it to Joe Biden.’”
But Capito, who won her second term last November, has been in the Senate long enough to see similar attempts to make a deal falter. She was dismayed earlier this year to be part of a group that approached Biden in hopes of negotiating on his COVID-19 relief bill, only “to have the door basically slammed in our face.”
“People are coming to me saying, ‘This is a fool’s errand,’” she said. “But I think it’s worth it to try.”
She said she’s hopeful that Biden, a creature of the Senate, is willing to negotiate. But she recognizes that progressives are trying to push him to move toward a reconciliation process that would effectively shut Republicans out of the process.
“Here’s the bottom line for me,” she said. “I’m working with my colleagues and the president daily to try to get to an agreement. If it fails I’d be roundly disappointed, but I’m not going to give up on other things or this. I just feel like I’m a realist. I see the political forces at play here.”