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After 30 years, DeFazio sees chance to realize infrastructure dream

House chair set for marathon markup of $547 billion package

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has a refrain he repeats when talking about the transformational investment in the nation’s infrastructure he hopes to see. 

“We’re not doing Eisenhower 8.0,” he said, referring to the original 1956 interstate highway system law. 

That system was partly sold as needed for national defense, to evacuate cities in case of nuclear war and move military equipment in case of a Soviet invasion. 

“I want to see something that’s appropriate to what I would describe as a bigger threat than the Soviet Union was, in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, in the Cold War, which is climate change,” he said. “That’s the new threat that we have to deal with.”

After more than 30 years working on transportation issues, the Oregon Democrat is seeing circumstances that may have aligned with solutions he envisions.

A Democratic president, Joe Biden, has made a $2 trillion infrastructure plan a top priority of his first year in office. His and DeFazio’s party also controls the House and, narrowly, the Senate. 

And on Wednesday, DeFazio’s committee begins what promises to be a marathon markup of a five-year, $547 billion surface transportation reauthorization bill that Democrats on the committee hope will constitute a key part of Biden’s infrastructure proposal.

Climate policy is threaded throughout the Democratic proposals, including provisions to build electric vehicle charging stations, reduce emissions and embrace green technology.

Transportation is the top source of greenhouse gas emissions, and to hear DeFazio describe it, the bill will be a failure if it does not meaningfully address that fact. 

The markup will likely last days and could include hundreds of amendments. Republicans have already signaled they will not support the bill. 

‘He’s winning’

But DeFazio, 74, a straight-talking, pugnacious former county commissioner who lives on a boat when he stays in D.C., is anxious to seize the moment. 

“He’s spent his whole career trying to get a major infrastructure bill done,” said Ed Mortimer, vice president of transportation and infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “He recognizes this is a moment for him.”

Peter DeFazio played the long game,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “And he’s winning.”

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This week’s markup may be the easy part: While the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a $312.4 billion highway bill on May 26, critics have blasted that bill as not sufficiently addressing climate change and being too modest in its funding. 

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are urging Biden to pare back his plan to include only “hard” infrastructure such as roads and bridges and not items like the $400 billion that Biden proposed to plan home- and community-based care for the elderly.

Although Biden continues talks with Senate Republicans, Democrats are threatening to use the budgetary reconciliation process to force through a bill over GOP objections. Such a process could block DeFazio’s quest to reinstate earmarks and implement substantive policy changes he craves. 

The reason? The Byrd rule, which limits what can be put in such a package

DeFazio hates the Byrd rule, named for Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who died in 2010. One of DeFazio’s go-to quotes is to grouse that the Senate parliamentarian “has to have a seance with a guy who has been dead for 11 years” in order to figure out whether it’s OK to put a provision in the bill. When he’s feeling more charitable, he simply refers to the Byrd rule as “the dead guy rule.” 

Faced with the potential hurdles of the reconciliation process, DeFazio plans to focus on his job: passing an ambitious highway bill. “As long as I can keep the core authorizations in there at some future date, they can be funded,” he said.

The ‘DeFazio bridge’

DeFazio is used to playing the long game. In his first highway bill in 1987, DeFazio, then a freshman, successfully secured money for a bridge in Eugene. 

“You’re going to be a hero,” a lobbyist told him.

“You don’t know Eugene,” DeFazio replied.

Voters rejected an initial plan to replace the historic bridge with a six-lane bridge. After years of delays, an exasperated Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., threatened to spend the money elsewhere.

“Give me a month,” DeFazio replied.

He convened a meeting between the state, the feds, the county and local officials from Eugene, threatening to lock them in his office. “Nobody leaves until we agree on how we’re going to get this done,” he said he told them.

“Finally, they came up with a design,” he said.  

Ten years after he started working on it, they finished the bridge, supplementing it with a bicycle bridge. They call the latter the DeFazio Bridge

“It’s beautiful,” he said. 

DeFazio thought infrastructure’s moment had arrived in 2009, when President Barack Obama vowed to invest in infrastructure as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, his stimulus bill to help the economy recover from the economic crisis. 

House Democrats pushed for a sweeping investment in infrastructure, but DeFazio said the Obama administration scaled it back, opting instead for tax cuts aimed at bringing in Republican support. 

DeFazio urged then-Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, to have committee Democrats vote against the package. 

“This is crap,” DeFazio told him. “We’ve got to do real infrastructure.” 

Oberstar assured him that Obama would do an infrastructure bill next. 

“You’ve been here longer than me,” DeFazio said he told Oberstar, “but in my experience in this town, the next thing never happens.”

It never did. 

Now, DeFazio said, the fact that Biden has made this one of his first big legislative pushes gives Congress “a unique opportunity.” 

“It’s gonna be a 21st-century bill,” he promises. “Because a lot of our infrastructure is aged out … we can rebuild our infrastructure in a way that deals with both the social equity program the president wants [and] deals with climate change.”

Cantankerous, but flexible

Nelson of the flight attendants union, an Oregonian who grew up in DeFazio’s district, said DeFazio “can be pretty cantankerous,” but he can also be flexible.

“If someone comes back at him, he’ll say, ‘Fair enough, I hear you,’ and incorporate [what they say] into his understanding of the issue,” she said.

That flexibility has earned him respect from across the aisle.

“It’s not hard to get an f-bomb out of him,” said Rep. Garret Graves, R-La. “But here’s the thing about him: Even though ideologically he and I are very, very different … what I respect about Peter is, if you can make a good policy argument, he’s open-minded about it.”

Last November, DeFazio faced one of the toughest political challenges of his career against Alek Skarlatos, a Republican best known for thwarting a gunman on a Paris-bound train from Amsterdam in 2015.

One DeFazio ad featured him chaining himself to a mailbox in response to complaints that the Trump administration was crippling the U.S. Postal Service to make it harder to vote by mail. 

Even as DeFazio fought for his political life, Nelson said, “he was still giving me 100 percent of his efforts to get COVID relief in place so [union] members would have their jobs.” 

“He was calling me while he was chained to a mailbox,” she said.

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