WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday pledged swift work by Congress on a jobs and infrastructure package that will be "fiscally sound," but she said she isn't sure whether the next major item on President Joe Biden's agenda will attract Republican backing.
After the $1.9 trillion virus relief package passed on near-party lines, Democrats face long and tough battles to win GOP endorsement of the administration's further plans.
Road- and bridge-building legislation has a long history of support from both parties as lawmakers try to deliver on projects back home. But Republicans disagree with Biden's focus on the environment and with the possibility of financing any program with debt as the government continues borrowing heavily to address the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
"Building roads and bridges and water supply systems and the rest has always been bipartisan, always been bipartisan, except when they oppose it with a Democratic president, as they did under President [Barack] Obama, and we had to shrink the package," said Pelosi, D-Calif.
"But nonetheless, hopefully we will have bipartisanship," she said.
Pelosi has directed key Democratic lawmakers to begin working with Republicans on a "big, bold and transformational infrastructure package."
During the presidential campaign, Biden laid the groundwork by proposing $2 trillion in "accelerated" investments to shift to cleaner energy, build half a million charging stations for electric vehicles, support public transit and repair roads and bridges. The plan emphasizes the importance of creating unionized jobs and addressing climate change.
Biden has pledged to transition America to a carbon-free electrical grid by 2035.
A June study from the University of California, Berkeley and GridLab, an energy consultancy, estimated it would take $100 billion in investments in transmission infrastructure alone to get the grid to 90% carbon-free electricity by then. Once completed, however, that could result in a 13% decrease in wholesale electricity costs.
The power failures during February's winter storm in Texas reignited calls from liberals for Congress and the White House to follow through on creating sustainable infrastructure.
Texas' crisis "highlights the need to transition to a renewable energy economy while investing in infrastructure and our communities," tweeted Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in late February.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island -- one of the strongest advocates for climate action among congressional Democrats -- called an infrastructure bill "our primary opportunity to move green priorities. Green infrastructure and low-carbon technologies have enormous potential to create jobs."
ROLLING OUT A PLAN
The White House originally planned to come out with a plan in February, but more recently it hasn't committed to a timeline. A rollout is likely to slide into April as the administration embarks on a nationwide push in the coming weeks to tout the benefits of the covid-19 relief bill.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, hope to advance a bill out of their committees in May.
The package could include policy changes -- on green energy and immigration -- and even try to make permanent some of the just-passed covid-19 assistance such as child tax credits.
"It is going to be green, and it is going to be big," DeFazio said.
Democrats used a fast-track budget process known as reconciliation to approve the covid-19 relief plan without Republican support, a strategy that succeeded despite the reservations of some moderates.
But work on passing infrastructure legislation in a Senate split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris providing a tie-breaking vote, will probably prove more difficult. Moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., recently made clear that he will block infrastructure legislation if Republicans aren't included.
Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said he wants to see bipartisan support for infrastructure legislation. But he said the House in the previous Congress refused to embrace a $287 billion bill unanimously advanced by a Senate committee and changed it in a way that Republicans could not accept.
"What did the House do? They replaced our highway bill with the Green New Deal," Barrasso said. "So they ignored what we have done in a bipartisan way. If they would take the model that we came up with in the committee in the Senate for highway and transportation, I think that's a very good start. I talked with the secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, about it, and I think that is the model on which we should move forward on transportation and infrastructure."
On Sunday, Pelosi declined to say whether tax increases would be required for the House legislation, stressing that Congress would explore all options, including generating revenue with something similar to the Obama administration's Build America Bonds.
Cost will be a major hurdle in passing an infrastructure plan. There's little political interest in increasing the 18.3-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax, which generates revenue for the Highway Trust Fund, even though the rate has not increased since 1993. Biden promised during the campaign that he would not increase taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year.
"This is about broadband. It's about water systems. It's about mass transit; it's about good-paying jobs all over the country," Pelosi said. "It's also about schools and housing and the rest. ... So the goal is to promote good growth, creating good-paying jobs as we protect our planet and are fiscally sound."
Information for this article was contributed by Hope Yen and Josh Boak of The Associated Press; and by Leslie Kaufman and Jarrell Dillard of Bloomberg News (TNS).