DeFazio and Biden were joined by Vice President Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and seven other House members. Biden said he wanted to talk to the group about “what we’re going to do to make sure we, once again, lead the world across the board on infrastructure.”
Infrastructure is expected to rise up the agenda after Congress finishes work on a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. DeFazio is targeting a transportation bill for the end of spring, and the Senate is hoping to shape a key part of its package by Memorial Day.
On Wednesday, the American Society of Civil Engineers released its influential four-year infrastructure report card, giving the United States a C-minus grade. The group pegged national road and rail transportation spending needs for the coming decade at $2.8 trillion — $1.2 trillion more than currently proposed.
The Biden administration and members of the Senate have pitched infrastructure spending as an area ripe for bipartisanship. But House Democrats’ efforts to pass a sweeping infrastructure package last year showed the limits on the potential for cooperation.
DeFazio has said he hopes to set the nation’s transportation infrastructure on a more environmentally sustainable path, casting his approach as a break with policies set during the Eisenhower era.
That rankled Republicans, who complained about being shut out of the drafting process that led to last year’s bill. It also prompted opposition from powerful state transportation departments, which say they are worried about being held to unattainable environmental standards.
Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the top Republican on the Transportation Committee, said he told Biden that Republican priorities had to be taken into account in any legislation.
“A transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill that primarily focuses on fundamental transportation needs, such as roads and bridges,” Graves said in a statement. “Republicans won’t support another Green New Deal disguising itself as a transportation bill.”
Last year’s $500 million legislation, which passed the House as part of a broader infrastructure package but was not taken up in the Senate, sought to weave environmental policies through transportation spending. It would have prioritized fixing existing roads and bridges over expanding the highway network and pumped money into transit and intercity rail.
DeFazio told reporters after the meeting Thursday that the bill would form the basis for this year’s proposal.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), a committee member, said Biden showed his commitment to tackling climate change during the meeting and that he saw the potential to draw Republican support to the cause, especially if it is framed in economic terms.
“The climate is changing, and the Republicans are coming along,” Garamendi said.
Disagreements over how to pay for any package have been long-standing. Gas taxes have not covered the cost of federal transportation spending for years, and Buttigieg recently said raising them would violate a pledge Biden made not to increase taxes on anyone making less than $400,000.
The 2020 bill would have covered the existing funding gap and new spending by transferring $145 billion from other federal funds. There was discussion during the meeting Thursday about how to raise money, including the notion of taxing drivers by the number of miles they travel.
Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), the Transportation Committee’s vice chair, said nailing down details will be part of lawmakers’ work in coming weeks and that there were “quite a few different options on the table.”
Graves said a bill that is not paid for would lose Republican support.
“We have to be responsible,” he said.