WASHINGTON – In a mostly party-line vote, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a roughly $760 billion transportation and infrastructure bill Thursday, marking the first time lawmakers have approved earmarks since Congress revived the practice that lets members direct funds to projects in their home states.
Only two GOP lawmakers, neither from the Northwest, voted in favor of the legislation that would boost the federal government’s regular spending on roads, railways and transit networks for the next five years, although roughly half of House Republicans successfully got funding for their districts included in the package.
The bill would send a total of $192.5 million to improve roads and bridges across Washington, including roughly $20 million each to the Eastern and central Washington districts of Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, both Republicans who opposed the final bill as it grew to encompass much of House Democrats’ broader vision for rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.
“At a time when roads and bridges in Eastern Washington and around the country are in disrepair and resources in rural communities are stretched thin, this bill is a missed opportunity to address actual road, highway, and bridge infrastructure needs,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement.
“This bill includes vitally important projects in my district, but when examined as a whole, this bill is not paid for and would add hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit spending,” the Spokane Republican said, lamenting that the legislation left out changes to federal permitting and that half of its spending would go to Democrats’ plan to counter climate change.
The package’s total price tag jumped after Democrats combined the $547 billion legislation to reauthorize yearly spending on surface transportation with a separate bill that would invest $168 billion in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. Amendments added another $44 billion, largely to support electric vehicle use after progressive Democrats were disappointed by the relatively modest investment the bipartisan infrastructure deal unveiled last week would make in climate-friendly transportation.
“What their framework lacks is policy,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters Tuesday. “My bill is the transformative policy that the Biden administration wants.”
That bipartisan framework, negotiated by a group of Democratic and GOP senators, would spend $1.2 trillion over eight years to modernize the nation’s infrastructure. Less than half of that money, $579 billion, would be new spending, with the rest being “baseline” annual spending authorized by Congress through legislation like the House passed Thursday.
The White House is attempting to walk a political tightrope, expressing support for the House Democrats’ bill while endorsing the scaled-back bipartisan framework. Progressive Democrats have said they will only back a compromise bill if the more moderate members of their caucus promise to support a parallel effort to pass other infrastructure priorities with only Democratic votes using special budget rules.
Congress’s current authorization for federal spending on surface transportation expires in September, and the House and Senate will need to pass identical versions of a bill before Biden can sign it into law. In the Senate, where the 60-vote majority needed to pass most bills forces the parties to compromise, senators have approved a smaller, $381 billion proposal on a bipartisan basis.
While the Senate proposal would represent a major increase in federal transportation spending, it falls short of what House Democrats called for Thursday. The House bill includes $343 billion for roads, bridges and safety programs, $109 billion for transit, $95 billion for passenger and freight rail, $117 billion for drinking water and $51 billion for wastewater infrastructure. Another $44 billion come through amendments added during two days of debate.
All 219 House Democrats voted for the bill. Along with McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse, Reps. Mike Simpson of eastern Idaho and Jaime Herrera Beutler of southwest Washington voted no, although all four Republicans included earmarks for their districts in the legislation. Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents North Idaho, did not vote but has expressed strong opposition to increased federal spending and opted out of the earmark process.
The bill could also help communities that have been impacted by wildfires prevent secondary disasters like flooding and mudslides. McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse, along with Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat whose district stretched from Wenatchee to the Seattle suburbs, succeeded in adding an amendment to the bill that would expand access to “pre-disaster mitigation grants” to communities like Malden and Pine City, two Whitman County towns that were devastated by a fire last September.