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House Democrats’ transportation bill may leave GOP at the station

Republican lawmakers blast Democratic measure as a partisan 'waste of time'

Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., speaks during a news conference in Washington on April 20.
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., speaks during a news conference in Washington on April 20. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans on Wednesday offered little hope of a “Kumbaya” moment over infrastructure during a markup of the five-year, $547 billion surface transportation bill, blasting the Democratic measure as a partisan “waste of time.”

Their complaints came less than 24 hours after bipartisan infrastructure talks between President Joe Biden and six Senate Republicans collapsed and provided yet another blow to his stated quest to seek a bipartisan deal on his $2 trillion-plus public works plan. 

“The reality is you all have your mind made up, and you’re probably going to push this partisan bill through and push it out of the committee and vote it off the floor and send it off to the Senate, where hopefully something better will happen,” Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said during the first day of what promises to be a multiday markup of the 1,383-page measure in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“This is just shocking,” said Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C. “It sounds like, if you’re a Democrat, you get whatever you want, and if you’re a Republican, you don’t.”

She called the process “an entire waste of time,” and criticized the environmental provisions in the bill as spending billions on fighting climate change rather than focusing on traditional infrastructure. 

Democrats have expressed hope that at least parts of Biden’s larger public works proposal can pass through a bipartisan, regular-order process, but while a $312.4 billion bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on May 26, there was little hope that the House would repeat that moment of bipartisan cooperation with its bill.

Instead, GOP complaints over the House bill, which Democrats hope will become a cornerstone of the larger Biden infrastructure plan, echoed concerns they expressed over a $494 billion highway bill that passed the House last year but never advanced in the Senate. 

Even as the committee met to debate the highway bill, a second bipartisan group, which includes Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., continues to work to find its own compromise on a larger package. Meanwhile, the 58-member bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus this week released its own $1.25 trillion infrastructure spending framework, including $761.8 billion in new spending over eight years, in an effort to salvage negotiations.

At Wednesday’s markup, Democrats praised the highway bill as transformative, with Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., saying that Republican criticisms of the bill’s environmental proposals are “completely disconnected from what’s actually going on in our economy.” 

Changing world

He said some automakers have begun phasing out gas-powered vehicles, while energy company Exxon Mobil Corp. has expanded its renewable energy portfolio. “This is the way in which the world is moving,” he said. “The question is, is the United States going to lead?”

During the first few hours of the markup, Republicans fought bitterly for amendments that would ban federal dollars from being used to purchase art or landscaping for transit stations; strike a section of the bill prioritizing fixing highways over building new capacity; and shift $277 million from a program that provides money for transit in states with high-density populations to all states. 

That amendment, introduced by Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., was praised by multiple Republicans on the panel. Perry called the program  a “handout” to “deep blue, East Coast states and the District of Columbia,” and Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., complained that the fact that just a handful of states receive the funding is “completely unfair.” Democrat Donald M. Payne Jr. of New Jersey defended the program, saying that many of the states that receive the funding give more in taxes than they receive in federal help.  

Republicans requested a roll call on those amendments, which were scheduled for later Wednesday night.

By contrast, two amendments in the first hours of the markup passed easily. One, by Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., would make hovercraft eligible for federal funding under a program that pays for water transit, such as ferries. It passed by voice vote. So did an amendment by Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., that would use $20 million in existing money each year to establish a University Rail Climate Innovation Institute for research and development of zero and low-emission rail technology.

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Most Democrats, however, introduced, then withdrew, their amendments. 

The overall highway bill includes $343 billion for roads, bridges and safety; $109 billion for transit; and $95 billion for freight and passenger rail.

Republicans on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced their own bill, authorizing $400 billion over five years, on May 18. That bill did not include passenger rail, water, aviation or broadband. It includes long-held Republican priorities, such as streamlining the regulatory process to speed up projects and reduce costs. It also focuses heavily on rural communities.

The House Democrats’ bill would invest $4 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure. By contrast, Biden’s plan would invest $15 billion in EV charging infrastructure over eight years, and the Senate EPW bill would spend $2.5 billion over five years.

The Democrats’ bill dedicates $8.3 billion for reducing carbon pollution, with an additional $6.2 billion for mitigation and resiliency improvements aimed at building infrastructure resistant to extreme weather events.

The bill also calls for investing $3 billion into a program aimed at tearing down or modifying bridges or overpasses that separated Black and brown communities from their cities. That proposal would receive $20 billion over eight years in Biden’s plan and $500 million over five years in the Senate EPW bill.

Regardless of Biden’s larger infrastructure plan, the highway bill is considered a must-pass; the current law, a one-year extension of the 2015 law, expires at the end of September.  

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