Nation/World

On infrastructure, lofty ideas are colliding with congressional reality

WASHINGTON - Rep. Thomas Suozzi, D-N.Y., says he will oppose President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package if a cap on state and local tax deductions is not erased. “No SALT, no deal,” he said in an interview.

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, said she has pressed Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other officials to add money for biofuel infrastructure, which would help her state. “I am hoping this was an oversight and that they will support it,” she said.

Business lobbyists, meanwhile, are privately urging the White House to drop the $400 billion home- and elder-care provisions to cut the bill’s cost and the corporate tax hikes needed to fund it. “The home-care provisions have been heavily attacked and are just vulnerable right now,” admitted one White House adviser, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

As Biden and Democratic lawmakers begin assembling a massive jobs bill that they hope will echo the New Deal and literally rebuild parts of America, they are quickly finding that their ambitions are colliding with the complicated reality of precisely how to do it.

Only now is Congress starting the arduous task of turning Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure blueprint into legislation, and it’s proving inordinately complex. Even before pen has been put to legislative paper, some Democrats in the narrowly divided House are noisily raising demands, sensing a fleeting moment of leverage.

Republicans are talking through a bipartisan alternative, though they are deeply skeptical that Biden will engage. And the American Jobs Plan could merge with other ongoing efforts to craft a wide-ranging transportation bill, a process with its own set of competing agendas.

The many dynamics at play are setting the stage for a lengthy and laborious path for getting the American Jobs Plan to the president’s desk. Unlike Biden’s coronavirus relief package, which he signed in his seventh full week in office, there is no urgent deadline for an ambitious jobs plan on the scale the White House wants, all but guaranteeing the legislative fight will take months.

Every day is an opportunity for Biden’s opponents to sling arrows at the infrastructure plan, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will confront one of their toughest tasks yet in keeping their paper-thin majorities together.

“These are priorities of importance to the American people: air their children breathe, the job opportunities in building the infrastructure - but not only building it, the commerce that will flow from it - the broadband that we are in desperate need of, either in rural America, yes, but in urban deserts as well,” Pelosi said. “So that’s where our conversation is.”

Lawmakers and aides have already begun trying to turn the proposal, which is dauntingly vague in crucial areas, into legislative text. Still, the drafting is very preliminary, with many House committees planning hearings first. Some are waiting for the second portion of Biden’s infrastructure package, which will focus on social programs, such as the child tax credit.

Congressional aides envision a process similar to that of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, where sections were farmed out to relevant committees - as many as eight different ones, in the case of the infrastructure bill.

And House leaders are waiting for more definitive cues from the Senate parliamentarian, who largely decides what policies can be enacted under a fast-track process called reconciliation, which would circumvent the need for Republican votes in the Senate.

The parliamentarian’s opaque rulings, and seemingly broad powers, have frustrated House Democrats, injecting uncertainty about what precisely will be allowed under reconciliation, which applies only to budget-related items.

“Reconciliation is not the answer for many of the things in Build Back Better,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, referring to Biden’s agenda. “There are myriad things you can’t do in reconciliation.”

If Democrats choose to pursue reconciliation, the committees’ separate measures would be packaged together by the House Budget Committee. But that decision probably won’t be made until there is more clarity from Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough.

“We just don’t know how many trains are going to leave the station,” one House Democratic aide said.

While the legislative text is still in limbo, House Democrats are piping up with parochial demands. Many want to use the bill to undo a $10,000 cap on deductions for state and local taxes enacted by Republicans in the 2017 tax law.

So far, Suozzi is the lone lawmaker to say explicitly that he will oppose the infrastructure package if the cap is not eliminated, but other members are pushing hard to lift the cap that disproportionately hits residents of Democratic, high-tax states.

But if the cap is lifted, the White House has hinted that House Democrats may have to offset what could be a costly move, because undoing the SALT cap would mean less tax money coming in.

Democrats are optimistic that they can find a way. “We’re not here to kill anything, but we sure as hell have put a marker down,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J.

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the House’s chief tax writer, does not plan to take a hard-line stance in favor of repealing the Trump-era cap, said an aide, deferring instead to other Democrats who are loudly making their case.

Other state-specific interests have also emerged, such as Axne’s demand for biofuel infrastructure. Axne said she has pressed not only Buttigieg but also Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and White House officials to include it in the bill.

And while the jockeying unfolds, congressional committees are quietly preparing measures addressing parts of the nation’s infrastructure - efforts that predate the release of Biden’s plan on March 31 - that will help gauge Capitol Hill’s appetite for bipartisanship.

The first test comes this week, when the Senate expects to turn to a roughly $35 billion water infrastructure bill. Aiming to replace aging water pipes and bolster wastewater systems against natural disasters, it has broad bipartisan support, but it’s smaller than what Biden has proposed.

Meanwhile, DeFazio and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., are plowing ahead with their respective transportation measures in the Senate and House.

Such bills are enacted by Congress every few years, and this one could be a way to push through some of the more traditional projects in Biden’s proposal, such as roads and bridges, according to aides.

“If we can move them as individual bills, let’s do that,” Carper said. “If they need to be put into a package - whatever works.”

Biden plans to host a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Monday to discuss the infrastructure plan, one in a series of meetings that have largely been listening sessions, according to attendees, rather than detailed negotiations.

Top administration aides are also continuing their outreach to various congressional factions, meeting this week with members of the center-left New Democrats Coalition at the White House, according to a person familiar with the plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the session has not yet been announced.

Careful to cultivate an image of a unified party, the White House has taken pains to conduct significant outreach to Democrats to understand their interests and smooth out potential differences, one aide said.

That hints at a potentially volatile dynamic underlying the process: The White House says it wants a bipartisan deal, but Democrats are preparing to move ahead alone if necessary. That is a delicate prospect, with the House divided 218-212 and the Senate split 50-50, meaning Democratic leaders have little margin for error.

The White House says it is waiting for a counterproposal from Republicans to Biden’s plan. But GOP senators have just started discussing a potential offer to the White House, unsure that the administration will take their proposals seriously.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the top Republican on the Senate committee overseeing public works, has proposed a $600 billion to $800 billion package, far smaller than Biden’s $2.25 trillion one. She has since called it a “ballpark figure,” but DeFazio appeared open to it, saying: “That’s not an insignificant amount of money.”

Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., who often channels Biden’s thinking on Capitol Hill, has endorsed splitting the current package, so $600 billion to $800 billion worth of transportation and broadband projects, partially funded by user fees, could pass with Republican support - and creating a separate package of Democratic priorities, which could clear Congress through reconciliation.

Republican leaders have not been too keen on such proposals. A group of 10 GOP senators is expected to meet privately early this week to discuss their next steps.

Despite scant evidence so far that the final package will be bipartisan, concerns are already bubbling in Democratic circles about what priorities would be sacrificed if the White House chooses to compromise with Republicans.

Centrist Democrats have pressed the administration to focus on the physical infrastructure components of the bill, because they will probably get Republican support. But other White House allies are worried that many of Biden’s “care economy” proposals - such as child care, paid family leave and an expanded child tax credit - could fail to pass if talks take a bipartisan turn.

Those measures will probably be included in Biden’s American Families Plan, a second part of the jobs initiative that the White House plans to release this month, but most Republicans strongly oppose them. That second package could fall by the wayside if Congress pursues a bipartisan path, liberals fear.

The current infrastructure plan also includes child- and elder-care provisions, which business lobbyists are pressing the White House to abandon to lower the bill’s overall price tag, and therefore the amount of corporate tax hikes necessary to fund it.

That, too, worries liberals. “There’s real concern among advocates that the size of the total package will be whittled down, and some of the investments in care infrastructure and housing may not make it over the finish line,” said one policy advocate in close contact to the White House, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe internal dynamics.

A White House official stressed that those “care” pieces are essential, even if they don’t fit into the traditional roads-and-bridges definition of infrastructure.

“The president included investments in care infrastructure in the jobs plan because he knows they’re vital to (the) well-being of the American people and the economy, and he is absolutely committed to delivering on that,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Allowing the home-care provisions to fall out of the bill would bitterly disappoint not just advocates and labor groups, but also several factions within the White House.

That disappointment would grow if the second package, the American Families Plan, fails to materialize, the official said. “The family plan stuff seems even more vulnerable, because they haven’t been proposed yet, so that fight is even greater.”

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