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Conservatives take aim at infrastructure bill in Senate

They say bill’s pay-fors are shaky at best and its spending will spur inflation and damage the economy

“The fact that something is bipartisan doesn’t mean that it makes sense for the American people,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah,  said of the infrastructure bill.
“The fact that something is bipartisan doesn’t mean that it makes sense for the American people,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said of the infrastructure bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Though up to 17 GOP lawmakers have signaled tentative support for the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure measure being debated in the Senate, conservatives urged on by former President Donald Trump are making it clear that to them, the “bipartisan deal” is no deal at all.

They say they’re concerned that the bill’s budget offsets, known as pay-fors, are shaky at best, its spending will spur inflation and damage the economy, and it is just too full of liberal goodies. 

Four — Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo. — decried the bill in a Wednesday news conference.

“The fact that something is bipartisan doesn’t mean that it makes sense for the American people,” Lee said.

[Let down by infrastructure bill, climate hawks eye reconciliation]

“This is not really an infrastructure bill,” said Hawley, singling out language about gender identity tucked in the broadband provisions of the bill. “This is a woke politics bill that is being paid for with hundreds of billions of dollars in pork-barrel spending.”

“Spending money on infrastructure is a needed good,” said Johnson, expressing skepticism about the bill’s pay-fors. “But we didn’t have to do it with deficit spending.”

Border wall, immigration amendments

Conservatives have criticized many provisions as unrelated to infrastructure, with the anti-tax Club for Growth saying water and power-grid provisions should not be considered infrastructure.

Based on amendments by three Republicans, however, the U.S.-Mexico border wall advocated by Trump meets the definition of infrastructure.

Johnson, for example, introduced an amendment barring the federal government from canceling, invalidating or breaching any contract for border security, including construction of the wall. The Senate rejected the amendment 48-49 on Wednesday.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., introduced an amendment that would partially defund Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and reallocate the funding toward border wall construction. “The American people should not be forced to foot the bill for Joe Biden’s pet project,” she said. Biden is a rail advocate.

And Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., introduced an amendment that would rescind Biden’s executive order halting construction of the border wall.

The border wall wasn’t the only issue to inspire conservative amendments.

​​Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., introduced an amendment that would withhold some money from states with “sanctuary jurisdictions,” defined as those with policies that block sharing or maintaining the immigration status of individuals convicted of drunken driving.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., introduced an amendment that would restrict funding for the transport of undocumented aliens who haven’t been tested for COVID-19 in the previous 10 days, haven’t been fully vaccinated or have symptoms of infection.

Cuomo factor

After New York’s attorney general this week released a report that found that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had sexually harassed members of his staff, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, introduced an amendment barring funds for any state in which the governor has been found to have sexually harassed employees.

“Gov. Cuomo, he needs to be held accountable, and this is one way that we can do that,” Ernst said in an interview.

While many prominent Democrats in New York and elsewhere have called for Cuomo, a Democrat, to resign, Ernst said the amendment was aimed at maintaining pressure on the governor.

The allegations against Cuomo have invited comparisons to Trump, who faced various accusations of harassment and assault from women over the years before his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump was captured on an infamous “Access Hollywood” tape bragging about his penchant for grabbing women.

Trump described those statements as “locker room talk,” denied the allegations and was able to retain the support of much of the Republican Party.

“I think every case will be different,” Ernst said when asked about the Trump comparisons. “But at the same time, if we have the power to hold accountable, we can certainly do that. And there has been an investigation, a probe, and that investigation found that [Cuomo] sexually harassed 11 women.”

‘Inflation bomb’

Conservative complaints are mostly related to scope and cost.

“It would be yet another inflation bomb in an economy that’s already been carpet-bombed by other inflation bombs,” Lee said at the news conference. 

He criticized the use of repurposed COVID-19 aid money to help pay for the bill, saying those funds were deficit spending in the first place. “When you have pay-fors that don’t actually pay, you’re just going to add to the debt and deficit, and this isn’t a good time to be doing that,” he said. 

Hovering over their concerns is Trump, who has issued statements urging conservatives not to give Biden a win.

“Why are RINOs so desperate to push bad, Radical Leftist policies?” he asked in a statement, using the acronym for “Republicans in name only.” 

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., downplayed Trump’s impact Wednesday, saying “the time was right” for an infrastructure deal.

“I think that, you know, you want to celebrate successes, no matter when they happen,” he said. “It just so happened that, like I said, the stars kind of aligned right now for both sides to come together and get behind this.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who led Republican negotiations of the deal, said Trump deserves credit for convincing Republicans about the importance of investing in infrastructure. Trump pushed unsuccessfully for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package while in office.

“He’s Mr. Infrastructure,” Portman said. “He was always supportive of infrastructure in his presidency, and that helped to get Republicans thinking more about the fact that our long-term economic growth depends on up-to-date infrastructure, and we’ve fallen behind.”

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