House Dems pass massive infrastructure bill; GOP calls it ‘nonsense’

Bridge construction continued in downtown Des Moines in late March 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House cleared a massive $1.5 trillion package Wednesday that backers said would not only shore up the nation’s crumbling infrastructure but also create jobs at a time of widespread unemployment, protect the planet from a warming climate and narrow long-standing racial disparities.

The bill takes “bold, broad and transformational action to rebuild our infrastructure and make it smarter, safe and built to last while addressing key injustices in America, which have been laid bare in the Corona-19 virus,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday during debate on the House floor.

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, called the bill “a massive progressive wish list” that “simply piles more debt onto future generations.”

The bill passed almost entirely along partisan lines, with 233 lawmakers voting for it and 188 against. Three Republicans — U.S. Reps. Brain Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Jeff Van Drew and Chris Smith of New Jersey — joined Democrats in favor of the bill, while two Democrats — Reps. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Ben McAdams of Utah — joined the GOP opposition.

Iowa’s three Democratic representatives — Cindy Axne, Abby Finkenauer and Dave Loebsack — voted in favor of the bill.  Republican Rep. Steve King, who lost his primary election last month, was among 10 lawmakers who did not vote Wednesday.

The centerpiece of the package is nearly $500 billion for roads, bridges, rail transit, zero-emission buses, harbors and ports and carbon-reduction and alternative fuel programs.

What’s in it for Iowa?

For Iowa, the bill includes an estimated $3.5 billion in federal-aid highway funding over five years to rebuild roads and bridges, according to Finkenauer’s office. It also includes an estimated $337 million in federal formula funding to support Iowa transit systems infrastructure and operations over five years.

“We heard loud and clear from Iowans that we must fix our crumbling roads and bridges,” Finkenauer, 1st District, said in a statement. “I’m fighting every day to update and improve our infrastructure to make Iowans safer, our economy more productive and our communities better connected.”

Axne, 3rd District, described the legislation as a fix for the economy as well as bricks and mortar. “Even before this current economic recession began, Iowa was in need of bold and comprehensive investments to improve our infrastructure — but as economic turmoil continues, there is all the more reason to secure robust federal investments to repair crumbling bridges and roads, create jobs, expand opportunity and access to critical services, and kickstart economic recovery,” Axne said in a statement.

Loebsack, 2nd District, said the legislation has been long-awaited. “It’s all too clear for many Iowans that our roads and bridges are in dire need of repair, schools are falling apart, and everyone should have access to broadband internet, no matter where they live. That is why I have been calling for a large infrastructure plan, such as HR 2, for many years,” Loebsack said in a statement.

It would also spend $130 billion to improve school buildings and more than $100 billion to increase access to affordable housing. And it would set aside $100 billion to increase access to high-speed internet service in rural and underserved areas, an issue that gained visibility as work, education and other aspects of social life shifted online amid the pandemic.

The far-reaching proposal also includes billions to shore up the nation’s water infrastructure and electric grid, upgrade hospitals and help community health centers, modernize the nation’s postal service, restore lakes and coastal habitats and clean up coal mines and oil and gas wells.

Lawmakers across a wide range of committees — including those with jurisdiction over transportation and infrastructure, energy and commerce, education and labor, financial services, science and technology, agriculture and others — left their imprint on the final bill.

“This is the product of so much knowledge, experience, the intellectual resources of people outside with their magnificent mobilization at the grassroots level for all of these things,” Pelosi said. “The intellectual resource of the entire Congress is manifested in this bill.”

She has characterized strengthening the nation’s infrastructure as a key avenue for bipartisan action, though other attempts to find consensus on the issue have failed in recent years.

President Donald Trump has also pushed for a massive infrastructure investment. In late March, he tweeted “this is the time” to pass an infrastructure bill and said it should be “big and bold” — on the order of $2 trillion — and should focus on jobs and infrastructure projects.

In April, Treasury Secretary Steven Munchin told CNBC that low interest rates make it a good time to invest in infrastructure and that he was discussing possibilities with Democrats.

Trump issues veto threat

But Trump threatened to veto the Democrats’ package Monday — the beginning of yet another “Infrastructure Week” on Capitol Hill — arguing that it is biased against rural America and would add significantly to the national debt.

“Instead of taking a balanced approach that would benefit more Americans, H.R. 2 is full of wasteful ‘Green New Deal’ initiatives that would impede economic growth and impose unnecessary mandates, hindering innovation and driving up costs for the American people,” the administration wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday he isn’t going to act on the bill, which he said would funnel billions from “actual” infrastructure projects into climate change projects and help cities at the expense of other parts of the country.

“This nonsense is not going anywhere in the Senate,” he said on the Senate floor. “It will just join the list of absurd House proposals that were only drawn up to show fealty to the radical left.”

McConnell has, however, hinted at a future coronavirus relief package and said Tuesday that such a package should focus on “kids, jobs and health care.”

He said the Senate will turn to such a package in the second half of the month, when it returns from its two-week holiday recess, according to Politico. His goal is to complete work on the bill before Congress adjourns for its August recess.

In May, the U.S. House approved a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill — a price tag roughly equivalent to the total cost of four previous response bills already signed into law.

The bill — called the HEROES Act — is aimed at blunting the ongoing health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It contains nearly $1 trillion for state, local, territorial and tribal governments, which are facing massive revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic. It would also offer direct payments of $1,200 to Americans, extend federal unemployment benefits, increase funding for nutrition assistance programs and ensure that every American can vote by mail in the November election.

On Monday, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter to McConnell urging the GOP to take further action in response to the pandemic instead of confirming more conservative judges and pursuing Trump’s “wild conspiracy theories.”

The letter comes as COVID-19 cases spike in states across the country, state and local governments face massive revenue shortfalls, demonstrations for racial justice continue, schools prepare to reopen and workers face expiring unemployment benefits.

“The House has acted,” Schumer and Pelosi wrote. “It is unacceptable that the Senate would recess without addressing this urgent issue. On behalf of the millions of American families who desperately need Congressional action, we demand you change your mind and decide to work with us for the good of the country.”