WASHINGTON – After weeks of political wrangling that kept the Senate in session for a second consecutive weekend, on Tuesday senators passed a landmark bill to authorize some $550 billion in new spending and invest a total of more than $1 trillion over five years in the nation’s aging roads, bridges, rails, pipes and other infrastructure.
Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho were among 19 Republicans who voted for the bill along with all 50 members of the Democratic caucus, including Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington. The bipartisan legislation was negotiated by a group of moderate senators, five from each party, and would send billions of federal dollars to the Inland Northwest for repairs and upgrades Democrats and many Republicans agree are long overdue.
Cantwell, who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the bill’s transportation provisions will help fight congestion and boost economic growth in the region.
“Spokane commuters and the region’s growing manufacturing and logistics economies depend on being able to move people and goods quickly to their destinations,” she said in a statement. “The investments in this bill will help address delays at at-grade rail crossings in Spokane Valley, keep key highway projects like the North-South freeway on track, and provide resources to Spokane Transit as it continues to expand its bus rapid transit network.”
Cantwell also pointed to the $66 billion the bill provides for passenger and freight rail, including $16 billion for Amtrak’s long-distance routes – like the Empire Builder that runs through Spokane on its way from Chicago to Seattle and Portland – and shorter, state-supported routes, like the Cascades that runs between Vancouver, B.C. and Eugene, Ore.
“Spokane International Airport will be able to compete for $5 billion in grants for terminal renovation projects,” Cantwell continued. “A new culvert removal and replacement program will address blocked salmon crossings under roads and railways, and $3.4 billion will be dedicated to the Forest Service to reduce wildfire risks.”
In a statement, Crapo said the infrastructure investments should counter the inflation that causes rising prices and provide long-term benefits to Idahoans.
“The bipartisan legislation we passed today makes investments in traditional, hard infrastructure projects to help keep pace with Idaho’s rapid growth,” he said, pointing to its investments in roads and bridges, high-speed internet and measures to make the West more resilient to drought and wildfires.
As the top GOP member of the Finance Committee, the panel charged with revenue issues, Crapo also underlined that the bill won’t raise taxes. Instead, it aims to pay for the investments by repurposing unused pandemic relief funds, various fees, and reinstating the Superfund tax on chemical manufacturers, which the legislation frames as a fee.
Critics, including many of the Republicans who voted no, have accused the bill’s proponents of creative accounting and have said it would not fully pay for itself. An analysis released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office last week projected the bill would increase the deficit by $256 billion over a decade, but that CBO score didn’t take the unspent COVID-19 relief dollars into account.
The spirit of bipartisanship the infrastructure bill brought, however, didn’t last long. On Monday, Democrats unveiled a budget resolution that would let them approve an additional $3.5 trillion over 10 years for a wide range of social programs and other investments they call “human infrastructure.”
That broader definition of infrastructure sees a lack of affordable child care or paid family leave as major barriers to economic opportunities and well-being, on par with the long commutes and slow internet connections the bipartisan bill seeks to remedy. The Democrats-only package includes an extension of the monthly child tax credit payments that began in July, free community college and subsidies to lower the cost of child care while raising the pay of the workers who provide it.
Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Crapo railed against the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget resolution, calling it a “reckless tax-and-spend proposal” and drawing a clear distinction between the bill, which no Republicans are expected to support, and the bipartisan “hard infrastructure” package.
Democrats plan to use a process called budget reconciliation to bypass the 60-vote majority needed to pass most legislation in the Senate. Republicans used the same process in 2017 to pass a sweeping set of tax cuts. Democrats aim to roll back some of those cuts for businesses and the wealthiest Americans, but President Joe Biden has promised not to raise taxes on anyone who earns less than $400,000 a year.
Murray, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, released five separate statements on aspects of the infrastructure bill, illustrating just how expansive the legislation is. After highlighting investments in broadband access, electric school buses, salmon recovery and more, she turned to the $3.5 trillion budget resolution.
“This is an important investment in our physical infrastructure,” she said in one of those statements, “and next we’ll get right to work on securing a truly historic investment in American families and workers by passing the budget resolution.”
Most of the infrastructure funding would be doled out through a combination of formula-based allocations and grant programs. It isn’t yet clear exactly how much money each state will receive, but according to the White House, Washington would receive at least $4.7 billion for highways, $605 million for bridges, $1.8 billion for public transit and $71 million for electric vehicle charging stations. Idaho would get at least $2 billion for highways, $225 million for bridges, $198 million for public transit and $30 million for EV charging.
All states could also apply for billions more through grant programs. According to an estimate by Cantwell’s office, Spokane International Airport would receive $32.3 million and the Tri-Cities Airport $16.7 million in grants.
Risch, who prides himself on being the country’s most conservative senator, explained his vote in favor of the bill as a way to rein in Democrats’ ambitions for “hard” infrastructure, on which Biden initially proposed spending more than $2 trillion.
“Senators had two choices: this $550 billion package with no tax increases, or allow Democrats to pass the Biden proposal of $2.5 trillion, raise taxes, and pile it on top of their impending $3.5 trillion social spending spree,” Risch said in a statement. “On behalf of Idaho, I chose to support the lower $550 billion investment in hard infrastructure like roads, bridges, and broadband. I believe it to be the substantially more reasonable and conservative solution to the necessary infrastructure spending.”
On top of the roughly $550 billion in new spending, the bill also renews an array of programs set to expire at the end of September, for a total cost of about $1.2 trillion.
Senators voted on several amendments to the infrastructure bill as it neared the finish line last week. One amendment, supported by 90 senators, would let urban Indian health centers like the NATIVE Project in Spokane use existing funds to make important renovations, including upgrading air filtration systems and expanding waiting areas to allow for social distancing, Those changes, important for preventing the spread of COVID-19, have been impossible because of restrictive language in an existing law.
Shortly after passing the bipartisan bill Monday, the Senate began debate on the $3.5 trillion budget resolution. That kicked off a so-called “vote-a-rama,” where the chamber votes on nonbinding amendments for up to 50 hours before Vice President Kamala Harris can cast the deciding vote to break the expected 50-50 tie in the evenly divided Senate.
Senators, who have already lost part of their annual August recess to the infrastructure vote, are eager to return to their home states and expected to strike a deal to cut the 50 hours of debate short.
After their passage in the Senate, both bills will go to the House, where progressive Democrats have threatened to block the bipartisan infrastructure package unless the Senate also sends them the $3.5 trillion spending bill. The House will be out of session until Sept. 20, when Democrats could pass both bills and send them to Biden’s desk to be signed into law.