NATIONAL NEWS: House Democrats unveil $760B infrastructure plan with an ambitious climate agenda

1/29/20 House Democratic leaders unveiled the outlines for a $760 billion, five-year infrastructure package on Wednesday — a proposal that includes an ambitious climate agenda but not, so far, many specifics about how to find the money.

In raw dollars spent, the Democrats’ package rivals the $1.5 trillion, 10-year infrastructure plan that President Donald Trump put out with great fanfare two years ago. But Trump’s would have relied mainly on state, local and private dollars — a controversial element even among many Republicans — and focused heavily on reducing the amount of time it takes to approve permits for projects.

The framework that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats released Wednesday includes an amalgamation of existing highway, transit and water legislation, of the type that Congress passes every few years, as well as new efforts to boost the availability of broadband internet and help communities counter the effects of climate change. Housing and school construction will also be a “special focus,” Pelosi told reporters.”

This is a big step, and a major expense,” Pelosi added. “We have to find the funding for it.”

The funding question featured prominently in a special caucus meeting before the rollout Wednesday, where Pelosi said she hoped the plan could spur an Eisenhower moment, bringing the country together. But how to pay for all of it was largely skirted.

She offered no hint of when the Democrats plan to turn the package into legislation the House can vote on, however. “We’ll go to the floor when we’re ready,” she said. We’re not talking about next week.”

Paying for any massive infrastructure initiative is always a tricky issue, especially considering that the simplest option — a hike to the gasoline tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993 — has been a political non-starter for most lawmakers in both parties.

But it’s already clear what won’t work, House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio said — simply continuing the seven-decadelong tradition of viewing infrastructure mainly as the construction of highways, paid for with an eroding tax on gasoline.

“We have a tremendous opportunity here to do a transformative 21st century infrastructure package,” the Oregon Democrat said. “We’ve been living off the legacy of Dwight David Eisenhower, with small tweaks, for 75 years. It’s falling apart. It needs to be rebuilt.”

That “rebuilding,” he said, should include construction techniques that take climate change into account, such as the use of concrete that absorbs carbon dioxide, as well as new transit and rail systems, “enhanced” inland waterways, efforts to ease overcrowding in airports and assistance to communities on their sewage systems.

At the caucus meeting, DeFazio reassured his colleagues that the House would not wade into the tricky debate over contentious ideas like the gas tax without a serious discussion from the White House. He did float other options, like renewing the Build America” bond.

The plan got a quick welcome — though not an explicit endorsement — from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which urged the parties to work together on a plan. “Our nation’s infrastructure is deteriorating and only getting worse,” the business group said.

The Democratic plan’s climate focus could present significant obstacles to getting Republicans on board, however. On Tuesday, Republicans on the House Transportation Committee issued their own infrastructure principles, which mentioned a desire for more project and permit streamlining but nothing about climate goals.

The panel’s top Republican, Missouri Rep. Sam Graves , said in a statement Wednesday that “any serious effort … must incorporate Republican principles as well.” He said that while he “may not agree with all of the principles in the majority’s outline, but as the Republican leader of this Committee, I expect to play a constructive role in the development of infrastructure bills before us this year.”

DeFazio said the plan’s climate elements will include making federal buildings carbon-neutral and transitioning to renewable fuels for aviation, as well as a focus on transit and rail as a greener option than automobiles and airplanes.

He said Tuesday that Republicans “shouldn’t have any objection to new, more climate friendly materials that are actually going to save the taxpayers money.”

Among other details, the plan calls for a total of $489 bill for highways, rail and transit, with traditional road projects receiving just 67 percent of the pot — a significantly smaller share than the 76 percent that highways received in the last Obama-era surface transportation bill.

It also includes $80 billion over five years to pay for high-speed broadband in “underserved” communities, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said.

“So that’s rural areas, that’s urban, what we call urban broadband deserts,” Pallone said. He added: ”We have about $12 billion for next-generation 911 that allows you to basically use your cellphone, for example, to send text messages or images.”

Some Democrats in the meeting broadcast a desire for an even bigger package, with massive investments into public housing and schools as well, according to multiple people in the room.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) — a prominent housing advocate — pressed Pelosi and other Democrats about spending more on affordable housing, specifically. Top Democrats urged their colleagues to focus on what was in the bill now, and said more legislation would come later this year focusing on other types of infrastructure.

By Tanya Snyder FROM POLITICO

01/29/2020 10:30 AM EST