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Bipartisan Senate group claims agreement on infrastructure

The five Democrats and five Republicans said their plan would be fully paid for and wouldn’t include tax increases

Construction workers in Miami, Florida work on the “Signature Bridge,” replacing and improving a busy highway intersection at I-95 and I-395 on March 17, 2021.
Construction workers in Miami, Florida work on the “Signature Bridge,” replacing and improving a busy highway intersection at I-95 and I-395 on March 17, 2021. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)

A bipartisan group of 10 senators say they have reached an agreement on what they call “a realistic, compromise framework” for a wide range of infrastructure spending. 

The group of five Democrats and five Republicans said in a joint statement late Thursday that their plan would be fully paid for and not include tax increases. 

A source familiar with the negotiations said the package was focused on “core, physical infrastructure” and included $579 billion in new spending above the baseline, or the amount typically spent on such programs in a year. 

Over five years, their proposal would cost $974 billion, including baseline spending. But over eight years, which is what President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion-plus package calls for, the cost would be $1.2 trillion, including baseline.

In a statement, the senators said they are discussing their approach with colleagues and the White House and “remain optimistic that this can lay the groundwork to garner broad support from both parties and meet America’s infrastructure needs.” 

The news infused hope that bipartisan talks between Biden and Republicans on the president’s proposed infrastructure framework might be salvageable even after Biden pulled the plug on talks with a group of six Senate Republicans led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia earlier this week. 

The new group includes Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah, as well as Democrats Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Gas tax indexing

The group, which met throughout the week, has not publicly revealed how they would pay for the plan, but Romney said it will include indexing the gas tax to inflation, but no new user fees.

The White House has consistently said it won’t support raising the gas tax, including by indexing it, saying it would effectively raise taxes on those making less than $400,000 a year, which the administration has pledged not to do. 

After Biden’s staff was briefed on the senators’ proposal, Deputy White House Press Secretary Andrew Bates said the compromise raises questions “around the details of both policy and pay-fors, among other matters.”

“The President appreciates the Senators’ work to advance critical investments we need to create good jobs, prepare for our clean energy future, and compete in the global economy,” Bates said in a written statement. “Senior White House staff and the Jobs Cabinet will work with the Senate group in the days ahead to get answers to those questions, as we also consult with other Members in both the House and the Senate on the path forward.”

In the House, Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., co-chairs of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, have engaged in talks with the senators. The 58-member group released a separate $1.25 trillion infrastructure spending framework, including $761.8 billion in new spending over eight years, which could mirror some of what the bicameral group ultimately proposes. But that group has not come up with a way to pay for their plan.

The new deal came just hours after the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved its five-year, $547 billion surface transportation bill. Within hours of the House committee gaveling out Thursday morning, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation released its bipartisan $78 billion rail and safety measure. It has scheduled a markup of that bill for June 16.

The House bill included $96 billion for rail, including $32 billion for Amtrak and $57 billion in competitive grants for rail.

By contrast, the Senate Commerce committee’s five-year overall funding authorization level breaks down into three buckets: $36 billion for rail, $27.8 billion for multimodal grants and $13 billion for safety programs, including $6 billion for National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s highway safety programs and $4.6 billion for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s commercial vehicle programs.

The Senate bill also includes $25 billion for Amtrak, which the senators described as “the most significant bipartisan investment in passenger rail in history.”   

The Commerce panel bill comes after the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on May 26 unanimously advanced its $312.4 billion highway bill. The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over transit, has yet to schedule a markup of its portion of the bill.

The surface transportation bill is thought to be a cornerstone of Biden’s larger, $2 trillion-plus infrastructure proposal, and committee work is progressing even as various bipartisan congressional groups try to reach a deal on the larger plan. 

The current surface transportation authorization, a one-year extension of the 2015 law, expires at the end of September. 

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said Wednesday he is determined to move the House Democrats’ plan through regular order. The House will take up the bill the week of June 28, said Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.

But if that bill, which the committee approved by a 38-26 vote, passes the House as expected, DeFazio said he is determined that the bill go through a conference committee with the Senate.  

Regular order

In comments before the committee Wednesday, DeFazio said that while the highway bill may be an important part of Biden’s broader infrastructure proposal, “this is not the American Jobs Plan.”

“I fully intend and have told (leadership) I want this to move through regular order in the House, even if it’s partisan,” DeFazio said.

Even as those talks continue, Democrats are increasingly preparing to force through at least parts of the plan using the budget reconciliation process, with Biden contacting Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer earlier this week about moving ahead with the next budget resolution in order to be ready to pursue reconciliation this summer.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden sees “multiple paths forward,” on infrastructure. “He feels it’s encouraging to see multiple proposals put out there, both from Republicans in the House and the Problem Solvers Caucus, as well as a bipartisan group that’s working on a proposal. Both will have increased numbers over what we’ve seen and been negotiating to date. Those are all positive steps.”

But, she added, “the Senate is also moving forward with a budget process.”

DeFazio, meanwhile, said he’s focused on the surface transportation bill, and that he is hopeful that both Senate Commerce and Banking pass their titles next week. 

“My understanding is once that’s done there is an intention to go to the floor with a comprehensive reauthorization,” he said. “And then we can go and have what we used to do around here — members appointed from both sides of the aisle and you sit down in a room and you hammer out a compromise.”

The urgency of action on infrastructure was highlighted in a National League of Cities’ 2021 State of Cities report released Thursday. In a survey of 600 mayors, 91 percent said they did not have the funds to make needed infrastructure investments.

Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.  

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