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West Virginia’s Capito emerges as central figure as Democrats, Republicans seek infrastructure deal

The delicate balancing act begins in earnest this week, as Capito prepares to lead a delegation of GOP lawmakers to meet with President Biden

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) walks through the Senate subway on her way to a vote on the Senate floor at the Capitol on April 19. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Six years after a landslide at Yeager Airport sent dirt and debris tumbling into the valley below, the runways at this hilltop transportation hub in Charleston, W.Va., still could use some upgrades.

The need for the new investment was obvious to Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who donned a hard hat and toured the airport to see some of its other ongoing construction projects in March. “A lot of our infrastructure is falling apart,” she told local reporters at the time.

Now, the fate of those improvements in West Virginia and around the country may well rest on her shoulders. As she returns to Washington, Capito, 67, has emerged as the GOP’s front-line voice in the high-stakes congressional debate over infrastructure. Hailing from a state that’s eager for federal money — and a party that’s increasingly reluctant to spend it — the second-term senator from one of West Virginia’s most well-known political families may be the best hope to help broker the sort of compromise that Democrats and Republicans insist they want.

The delicate balancing act will begin in earnest this week, as Capito prepares to lead a delegation of GOP lawmakers to meet with President Biden to discuss their competing visions for the nation’s roads, bridges, airports and waterways. Trillions of dollars in policy differences still separate the two sides, but the president and his top aides stress that they prefer a bipartisan deal on infrastructure.

On March 31, President Biden outlined a massive $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. Here’s what’s included in the plan and how it’s funded. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post, Photo: AP/The Washington Post)

Entering the talks, Capito newly has captured the political spotlight. As the ranking Republican on the Senate’s leading infrastructure committee, she has put forward a $568 billion counterproposal on behalf of her party, a package that’s far smaller in size and scope than the $2.3 trillion plan Biden announced earlier this year.

But striking a deal means winning over the president, who has sought massive new spending financed through tax increases that Republicans oppose — all the while accommodating the fiscal austerity and political doubts emerging within her own party. GOP lawmakers aren’t even convinced that a deal is possible, after Democrats seized on their narrow majorities in Congress to muscle through a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package earlier this year.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you several people have told me that you’re just going to get burned in the end, [so] why are you sticking your neck out?” Capito said during a recent interview, adding that she is proceeding in earnest anyway, “because it’s worth it.”

The urgency surrounding the White House meeting is evident in Capito’s own political backyard, which ranks among the lowest nationally for infrastructure, according to a report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. More than 1,500 bridges in West Virginia are structurally deficient. The state’s water pollution counts among the worst in the country, and its dams increasingly are reaching the end of their planned lives. Rodney Holbert, an engineer at the firm Burgess and Niple who helped prepare the study, said estimates show that West Virginia needs more than $5 billion to address some of its immediate needs.

The federal debate about infrastructure reform in Washington offers an opportunity to begin the long, arduous work of making these critical improvements, here and nationwide — yet only if lawmakers including Capito can reach the sort of bargain that has long eluded them.

“We have great need in West Virginia. I think that’s probably universal,” she said. “We have a lot of old and aging infrastructure everywhere.”

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On one side of the debate is the White House, which has endorsed more than $4 trillion in spending across two economic packages. The first of those blueprints, known as the American Jobs Plan, couples about $2 trillion in investments in roads, bridges and pipes with new programs to combat climate change and improve schools nationwide. Biden has proposed financing the effort chiefly by raising taxes on corporations, a move that would unwind the cuts imposed under President Donald Trump.

Congressional Republicans, however, have sharply rebuked the cost and policy scope of Biden’s approach. In blasting it as too liberal, GOP lawmakers led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) have stressed in recent days that they are not going to support any infrastructure bill that includes changes to the 2017 tax law, setting down a major political marker to protect what they consider their crowning economic achievement.

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The result of that standoff is a politically fortunate moment for Capito, who was first elected to the Senate in 2015, after 14 years in the House. She begins the negotiations already having secured an early reputation on the chamber’s Environment and Public Works Committee as a deal-minded lawmaker, joining with Democrats most recently in April to help advance a robustly bipartisan, roughly $35 billion bill to improve the country’s water infrastructure. It passed the Senate with near-unanimous support.

“I trust her, I like her,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the chairman of the panel. He said Democrats and Republicans similarly are close to a compromise that would reauthorize key federal transportation programs for the next five years.

Infrastructure is in some ways a familiar debate for Capito, whose father, the corruption-plagued Arch Moore, presided over West Virginia as governor in the 1960s and 1970s as it began to pave hundreds of miles of highway through its scenic but treacherous mountains. Moore later grappled with the consequences of failed infrastructure — a burst dam and debilitating flood that ultimately killed hundreds in the state — in what became a national warning sign about the consequences of local and federal neglect.

“I don’t think it’s hugely unfair to say it’s somewhat embedded in her DNA,” said Steve Roberts, the president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, reflecting on her father’s work.

On behalf of her party, it was Capito who chiefly drafted Senate Republicans’ primary counter-offer on infrastructure in April that amounts to less than a third of the cost of Biden’s plan. Gone were some of the investments in new, green technology, as Biden has supported, along with the president’s proposed tax increases — as Republicans sought to replace the financing instead with vague plans to impose fees on those who use infrastructure the most.

Capito’s plan had immediate appeal to some in West Virginia, a state where two-lane country roads are common in some communities and many thoroughfares are in dire need of aid. Among the most notorious is a 133-mile stretch of highway that sluices through mountains across the northeast portion of the state. Local and federal funding has helped complete much of the work, but about 16 miles of unfinished, unfunded highway remain in the project known as Corridor H.

In smaller cities and towns such as Buckhannon, new commercial centers and industrial parks have sprung up around the completed construction, said Robbie Morris, the executive director of the Randolph County Development Authority. But some towns still remain unserved more than 50 years after policymakers in Appalachia first dreamed up the highway plan, he said, a reflection of financing that has yet to materialize and the opportunity that might accompany new federal investment.

“We are hopeful any infrastructure package that would come out of Washington would speed up and help the construction of those final two sections,” Morris said, praising the work of Capito and others.

Biden insists he’s willing to negotiate with Republicans on infrastructure

In the nation’s capital, however, the GOP senator’s proposal arrived to more mixed reactions. Republicans in the Senate largely lined up behind it even as congressional Democrats blasted it as being too small and unambitious. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration hoped to engage further with the Republican from West Virginia.

Privately, though, Biden told a meeting of Democratic and Republican lawmakers earlier in the month that $600 billion for infrastructure may be too low, according to two people familiar with the matter who attended the session and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private gathering. Publicly, meanwhile, the president has argued against financing infrastructure in any way that could tax or burden people making less than $400,000 annually, perhaps imperiling Capito’s plan to rely on user fees.

Capito publicly had floated a level of infrastructure spending between $600 billion and $800 billion earlier this year, but ended up introducing a slightly smaller package. Her supporters, including Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), said the final cost reflects an early “consensus” figure among Republicans who have harbored growing concerns about federal spending in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

The fiscal pressures threaten to loom large over Capito as she seeks the right balance between the needs of her state, her party’s fiscal restraint and her Democratic counterparts’ desire for a bigger deal.

“It’s a difficult needle to thread,” Toomey said. “I think Senator Capito is very well aware of the Republican concerns about how big this could get. Many of us believe that we’ve spent too much money already.”

Some GOP lawmakers are expected to deliver that message on Thursday, as Biden prepares to host Capito and a delegation of Republican lawmakers including Toomey and Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Mike Crapo (Ind.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.). The meeting comes after Biden called Capito directly last week with an invitation, promising they would not “sit there and smile with one another,” she said, adding that the president told her it is time to “actually start to crunch the numbers.”

Entering the meeting, the White House sought to emphasize that it sees Capito and her proposal as a sign of “good will,” said Louisa Terrell, the president’s legislative affairs director. “We hope to continue that conversation over the coming weeks with the Senator, and with any of her Republican colleagues who are willing to negotiate in good faith on a path forward,” she said in a statement.

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But some of Capito’s colleagues are not convinced that a grand compromise is even possible, after Biden secured the coronavirus stimulus bill earlier this year without incorporating their input. Much like the infrastructure debate, Biden met with Republicans in the early days of what he hoped would be a bipartisan deal over pandemic aid. In the end, though, the president seized on his party’s narrow majorities in the House and the Senate to advance the measure, known as the American Rescue Plan, through a legislative maneuver known as reconciliation.

Barrasso said in a recent interview that the risk remains that Biden could seek to turn to reconciliation again to advance an infrastructure package that’s far larger than GOP lawmakers would support. But he also mused that Capito and Republican leaders may have at least some leverage, given lingering divisions within the Democratic Party over what a final bill should entail and how it should be paid for.

“They don’t have all the Democrats on board to do the big bill,” Barrasso said. “Which means if they want to do any infrastructure, they’re going to want to come and partner with us.”

On infrastructure, lofty ideas are colliding with congressional reality

The stakes are even greater in West Virginia, a state accustomed to reaping a political windfall from its high-profile representation in Congress. Capito’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joe Manchin III, is powerful in his own right, as arguably the most critical swing vote in his party. But the political tradition dates to Sen. Robert Byrd (D), who wielded his perch and seniority for decades to bring back big bucks in transportation and other “pork” spending to the state.

John Kilwein, a political science professor at West Virginia University, said Capito’s recent emphasis on what Republicans call traditional infrastructure is likely to serve her well in her “ruby-red state,” where she remains staunchly popular. In doing so, he said, the senator’s high-profile advocacy also risks raising expectations with local voters, business leaders, union officials and infrastructure experts that she can help deliver a widely supported political deal.

“She has to be careful, because she can’t do the traditional Republican ‘We can’t afford it and walk away’ [approach], because enough West Virginians would benefit from this,” he said.

And the asks already are sky high.

More money is needed at Yeager Airport, the regional hub that Capito toured in March on the very day that Biden released his roughly $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Its unique topography, perched atop a hill, has made upgrading its transportation footprint all the more challenging.

Recent federal aid secured by Capito, Manchin and others has fueled a recent construction boomlet here on its maintenance and emergency facilities, but the airport still needs to make “hundreds of millions” in additional improvements, said Dominique Ranieri, its chief operating officer. That includes runway fixes to improve safety features that in effect would allow larger passenger, cargo and military planes to land, she said, bringing more visitors and commercial opportunities into the state.

“I understand everyone is coming to Washington, and everyone has projects and needs, and wants to improve their area or their state,” Ranieri said. But she said she hopes lawmakers including Capito can “help us improve our state overall.”

About half a century after the dam ruptured at Buffalo Creek, resulting in the flood that imperiled her father’s governorship, West Virginia’s other dams still are in need of aid. About three-quarters of its 586 dams are classified as “high hazard,” according to the report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, in many cases reflecting their advanced age.

By some estimates, there’s at least a $900 million shortfall just in funding for improving those dams, said Dave Meadows, the chief technical officer at the firm Trident Engineering. On top of the billions of dollars needed to replace pipes, combat pollution and improve wastewater treatment, Meadows said he that fears that some of the numbers tossed around in Congress, including Capito’s plan, still may not be enough.

“That’s a drop in the bucket for what’s needed,” he said.

Facing surging demand, Capito said she understands the vast needs in West Virginia to pave highways, fix pipes and make other improvements. But she stressed that her infrastructure proposal could still make a difference for her state and others like it, narrowing the political gap that historically has undermined any hope in Congress for reform.

“Is it enough? It’s never enough,” she said. “I don’t think the expectation here is going to be we can fix everything every time in one fell swoop. This is a big and robust package.”