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‘This is a Republican agenda’: Idaho’s Mike Crapo calls bipartisan infrastructure bill a win for conservatives as GOP lawmakers face blowback for support

Senate Finance ranking member Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, speaks during an October news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 19, 2021. Crapo is among the Senate Republicans expressing concern that new funding given to the IRS in the Democratic Inflation Reduction Act will cause agents to target low- and middle-class Americans.   (Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON – Republicans who helped pass the landmark infrastructure bill that became law Monday have faced blowback for supporting the bipartisan legislation.

But in the eyes of a GOP senator from Idaho, it was a major win for conservatives.

Sen. Mike Crapo voted for the infrastructure bill in August along with 18 other Republicans, including his fellow Idaho Sen. Jim Risch. In an interview Wednesday, Crapo argued that by negotiating with Democrats on the bill, he and other GOP senators secured longstanding priorities while cutting the overall amount of new infrastructure spending Democrats proposed.

“We agreed to traditional, hard infrastructure, which has been a high Republican priority for years,” Crapo said. “President Trump was pushing for an even larger infrastructure bill when he was in the presidency, and so this is a Republican agenda … and it’s something that we’ve badly needed in America for years.”

After President Joe Biden proposed roughly $2.3 trillion in infrastructure spending in March, several GOP senators worked with Democrats to negotiate a pared-down infrastructure bill, which ended up including about $550 billion in new spending. Democrats, whose narrow majority gives them control of the Senate’s committees, opted to combine that new money with funds for existing programs for a total of about $1.2 trillion – a move Crapo said Democrats made because they didn’t want to admit the final bill was about a quarter the size of Biden’s initial proposal.

As the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Crapo succeeded in keeping several Democratic tax proposals out of the final bill, while repurposing about $200 billion in unused money from earlier economic relief bills to help finance the new legislation.

Biden signed the bill into law Monday after the House passed it Nov. 5 with just 13 of the 213 Republicans in the lower chamber voting in favor, enough to overcome six “no” votes by progressive Democrats.

Crapo said he and Risch faced similar criticism when they voted for the bill in the Senate in August, but he added that dynamics in the Senate were different because of the filibuster, a rule with no equivalent in the House that effectively requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass legislation in the Senate. With control of the Senate, Democrats threatened to scrap that rule to pass the infrastructure bill, giving Republicans more reason to vote for it.

“I’m absolutely convinced that we stopped the pressure for elimination of the filibuster,” Crapo said. “And I think we also gained the support of allies on the Democratic side to help us reduce the spending in the rest of the president’s bills.”

After Democrats piled the rest of Biden’s agenda into the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act, opposition from moderate Democrats forced the president to cut that proposed spending by half. While House Democrats passed a roughly $2 trillion version of that bill Friday, party centrists have vowed to pare it down further before holding a vote in the Senate.

Crapo also cited provisions in the infrastructure bill that promise to benefit Idaho and other Western states, including a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program, or SRS, a priority Crapo shares with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the chairman of the Finance Committee. Congress established SRS in 2000 in response to declining timber sales on federal lands, which had provided important revenue to rural counties in the West.

Many counties in North Idaho and Eastern Washington rely on SRS payments, which are based on historic revenues, to fund schools, roads and other public services. In 2020, according to U.S. Forest Service data, the program sent more than $726,000 to Bonner County, nearly $630,000 to Pend Oreille County and more than $2.6 million to Shoshone County.

“Reauthorizing and extending the SRS bill has been a very painful experience for our counties, because it continuously lapses or gets close to lapsing, and these counties need this resource,” Crapo said. “We got this extended so that we don’t have to go through an annual battle on this.”

Crapo said he will continue to work with Wyden and Risch on another bill that would create a trust fund for the SRS program, to eliminate the uncertainty of the current funding system.

When the infrastructure bill passed the House, other Northwest Republicans explained their opposition by linking it with the Build Back Better Act, which progressive Democrats had sought to move at the same time as the infrastructure package. Ultimately, the moderate and progressive Democratic factions struck a deal that decoupled the two bills and let the bipartisan legislation pass.

“The Senate infrastructure bill and the massive tax and spending spree are not the will of the American people,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, said in a Nov. 5 statement. “The Democrat’s radical agenda to spend a reckless amount of money will raise costs and make it even harder for people to build a better life.”

While the Build Back Better Act is more controversial, polls have shown the bipartisan infrastructure bill has broad public support. A Morning Consult poll in September found 56% of Americans back the bill, while a Fox News poll in August put that figure at 62%.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said in a statement Nov. 8, “I voted against these bills because I could never in good faith vote to pass legislation that would harm the people I took an oath to represent.”

“I’m aware of those comments, but I think that circumstances have already proven that not to be accurate,” Crapo said. “There was a time period where those in the House could worry that they were linked, because Nancy Pelosi was linking them together, but they’ve now broken loose. And so it’s clear that that argument, though it was made, was not ultimately correct.”

While Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky voted for the infrastructure bill, GOP leaders in the House asked their members to vote against it. Every Northwest Republican in the House opposed the bill, including McMorris Rodgers, Newhouse and Rep. Russ Fulcher, whose district includes North Idaho.

The 13 House Republicans who voted for the bill have faced both threats of violence from constituents and retaliation from some of their fellow GOP lawmakers. On Tuesday, several members of the House Freedom Caucus pushed unsuccessfully to strip Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., of his committee assignments for voting for the infrastructure bill, for which one Freedom Caucus member labeled him a “traitor.”

By comparison, just two House Republicans voted Wednesday in favor of similar punishment for Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., after his office posted an animated video online depicting Gosar killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y.