Shaky bipartisanship kicks off infrastructure talks

Source: By Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee struck a bipartisan tone on infrastructure and climate legislation yesterday, but lawmakers still have few answers for sticky questions about pay-fors and scale.

Senators from both parties said during a hearing they’re hoping to craft a bipartisan bill that invests in crumbling highways and bridges and vastly expands the nation’s electric vehicle infrastructure.

“What’s going to be challenging is the size and how it’s paid for, or whether it’s all paid for,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the panel, told E&E News after the hearing.

It also remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will push to use the EPW Committee’s surface transportation reauthorization bill as a vehicle for a larger suite of climate and energy policies, much like the $1.5 trillion infrastructure package that passed the House last year.

EPW Committee ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) specifically warned against that yesterday, citing talk from Democrats — namely Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — about moving a larger bill through budget reconciliation.

“The strong bipartisan support that exists for the surface transportation reauthorization bill and other infrastructure legislation should not extend to a multitrillion-dollar package that is stocked full with other ideologically driven, one-size-fits-all policies that ties the hands of our states and our communities,” Capito said.

Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) has similarly downplayed talk of moving infrastructure through reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to bypass Republican filibusters in the narrowly divided Senate, and has said he wants to move a bipartisan bill out of committee by the end of May.

Either way, Carper signaled he would emphasize climate change policy, particularly electric vehicle charging infrastructure, after General Motors Co. pledged last month to sell all zero-emissions vehicles by 2035.

Carper called for “corridors of charging stations and hydrogen fueling stations across this country.”

“A raging pandemic. Millions of jobless Americans. A growing climate crisis that demands bold action. So, what do we do about it?” Carper said at the hearing. “As it turns out, smart investments in our transportation infrastructure enable us to tackle all three of these challenges.”

EV charging was a focus of the $287 billion surface transportation bill EPW passed out of committee in 2019, which contained a first-ever climate title.

‘Necessary idea’

The hearing did not, however, answer many of the questions that have dogged lawmakers working on infrastructure for years.

During the Trump administration, Congress never found a way to cover shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund, despite talk from the White House about raising the federal gasoline tax, which is not indexed for inflation and has remained the same since 1993.

Carper is a longtime advocate for a vehicle miles traveled fee, a policy that would incorporate EVs as well as gas-powered vehicles.

“But if VMT turns out to be the future, we’re going to need a bridge — or more likely, several bridges — to get us to that future for the next decade or so,” Carper said yesterday.

“For that, we’ll be looking to the Finance Committee for help in funding the next five-year reauthorization, and the Senate committees on Banking and Commerce have major roles to play, too.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) noted that while a gas tax increase may be “a necessary idea,” it’s likely to soon be obsolete with the General Motors announcement and EVs making up an increasing share of the cars on the road.

“Whatever we do with the trust fund, we need to capture the fact that most cars by the middle of the century, 2050, probably won’t run on gasoline,” Graham said. “That’ll be good for the environment, but it will certainly require us to put new infrastructure in place and redesign the trust fund.”

Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) separately pitched his own pay-for to offset an infrastructure package yesterday, renewing his call for a national so-called value-added tax on goods and services that use shared infrastructure resources.

“A gasoline tax is not going to do what we need, and you have to look at it much broader,” Manchin said on a webinar with the American Council for Capital Formation. “A VAT tax for infrastructure might be the only tool. … I don’t know of anything that would be more universal or that’s equitable or that’s fair. We’ll have to see.”

On the other hand, there’s also political impetus to spend with the pandemic still wreaking havoc on the economy, and some members have suggested that an infrastructure bill may not need to be paid for.

“There’s some people saying they just want to debt finance,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) told E&E News yesterday.

“The way forward on revenues or no revenues is very murky,” DeFazio said.

‘We have to pay’

Despite Capito’s reservations and the remaining questions about revenue, the early talk indicates an infrastructure bill could add up to go well beyond EPW’s conventional surface transportation legislation.

Cardin said he hopes EPW’s portion is pricier than the $287 billion measure the panel passed during the 116th Congress.

But Manchin, likely among the key votes needed to get on board the Democrat proposal if the White House wants to move the package without Republican support, suggested an infrastructure bill could run as high as $4 trillion.

But he has also voiced concerns in recent months about the climbing national debt. “We’re going to have to pay for whatever we do, sooner or later we have to pay,” Manchin said.

Some House Democrats will certainly be pushing for spending in the trillions of dollars. DeFazio said he’s looking to have his portion of an infrastructure bill finished up in the spring.

“What other components it’ll have this time, I haven’t had that discussion with leadership,” DeFazio said. “We have to have the Energy and Commerce components because they relate to the electrification of the national highway system and defossilization.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) declined to say yesterday how much leadership wants to spend on an infrastructure bill, but he pointed to the $1.5 trillion House measure as a potential model.

“I won’t use a number, but I would think that if I were you, if I were the public, I would look at that bill and say, ‘Well, that’s what the Democrats passed, that’s where they thought we ought to be going.'”

Reporters Geof Koss, Emma Dumain and Jeremy Dillon contributed.