Biden Cabinet Calls on Senate to Loosen Grip, Spend Big on Infrastructure

The time will never be better than right now to invest in the nation’s infrastructure, senior administration officials told lawmakers, as negotiations over President Biden’s American Jobs Plan continue at the White House.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks Tuesday to members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on the need to pass the president’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. (Screenshot courtesy of Senate Appropriations Committee livestream via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Looking to pry open the congressional purse, a quartet of President Joe Biden’s senior cabinet officials came to the Senate on Tuesday in support of a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that faces fierce headwinds on Capitol Hill.

The pitch is not completely controversial. There is bipartisan agreement in Washington that the nation’s infrastructure — typically understood to mean its roads, highways, waterways and bridges — are in disrepair and have gone neglected to varying degrees for some time, often at great cost, and regardless of which administration occupies the Oval Office.

Since negotiations began for the Biden administration’s high-cost proposal, however, the White House has contended that American infrastructure is not just some seemingly unsexy business of highway administration. Those nuances took form at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee through the testimony of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Marcia Fudge, who is secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The department heads said Tuesday that infrastructure effectively encompasses all that is essential, from child care to oversight of the national manufacturing supply chain to regulations for the water pipes to affordable housing.

And after years of havoc on the economy wreaked by climate change — in 2017 Hurricane Harvey cost $125 billion in damages alone — Secretary Buttigieg told lawmakers not to scorn the plan’s climate-based initiatives as liberal fever dreams.

“I’ve heard it said that the bill should be about roads and bridges and not about climate change,” Buttigieg said. “I would compare that to drawing up plans for a new restaurant with no plans for health, safety or cleanliness.”

One sticking point for Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, was the proposed funding for the installation of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations by 2030. Rebates would also be rolled out for electric vehicles, and federal funding would also double for public transit over that time.

Collins questioned whether the administration was wisely choosing to spend billions “for more subsidies for electric vehicles versus the roads they would travel.”

When it comes to electric vehicles, it will be key for the U.S. to make sure they are built on American soil, Buttigieg said, and there must be robust investment on the front end to ensure that happens. Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, for example, there was sweeping investment into the construction of airports all over the U.S.

Standing up the airports created the aviation industry and shaped it into what it is today. The same could be done with electric vehicles, Buttigieg noted, but this time with an eye on climate impact and resiliency.

“The need for new investment is impossible to ignore,” he said, recalling how a portion of California’s Highway 1 fell into the ocean this past January. “We need to reinforce, upgrade or realign existing transportation structure to withstand effects of climate change.”

Biden’s plan also calls for a massive $111 billion investment into revamping and modernizing water systems in the U.S. with tens of billions of dollars poured just into EPA’s depleted drinking water and water infrastructure funds.

EPA Administrator Regan noted to lawmakers that the $111 billion would go toward completely removing the nation’s lead pipes and service lines. About $56 billion in grants and low-cost flexible loans would also be flagged for states and tribes to upgrade wastewater and stormwater systems in low- to moderate-income communities.

Another $10 billion would go into remediation of polyfluoroalkyl and perfluorooctanoic substances, or PFAS and PFOS, found in groundwater.

President Joe Biden holds up a silicon wafer as he participates virtually in the CEO Summit on Semiconductor and Supply Chain Resilience in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on April 12. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said he’s grown tired of listening to naysayers say the U.S. could spend too much too quickly.

“To those who say now is not the time, if not now, then when? If not us, then who? With the climate crisis we have to step up,” Leahy said. “With our economy curbed to stop the spread of the deadly pandemic, there’s a need not just of cash infusions but jobs, good-paying jobs to rebuild America — not to where we were but where we have to be in this next generation if we want to compete on the national stage.”

Preserving competition while improving economic sustainability is exactly what Commerce Secretary Raimondo said the U.S. could achieve with an investment of $50 billion into a dedicated new office at the Commerce Department that would monitor domestic industrial capacity. That office would effectively help the U.S. wrangle production of semiconductor chips, a commodity that has been under a global shortage since the pandemic began.

“It is not an exaggeration to say there is a crisis in our supply chain. Not that long ago, America led the world in making semiconductor chips, today we produce zero percent. That’s a national-security risk and an economic risk,” Raimondo said. “The Defense Department has been warning us for years that the decline in our small- and medium-size manufacturers in critical supply chains is a national-security risk. I hear the concern that this may look like a subsidy to profitable companies. I understand that, but that’s not what this is. This is an investment in research and development to ensure that we can protect ourselves. We are totally reliant on Taiwan and China for this critical supply.”

The Biden administration has met opposition from Republicans in Congress on how it plans to pay for the bill. The president has suggested raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, and Republicans have balked.

Though cordiality has reigned supreme in talks, if there is no room for compromise, the White House is reportedly considering forcing action through the hyper-partisan budget-reconciliation process.

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