US House Democrats call for US$760 billion in infrastructure spending over 5 years

WASHINGTON  – US House Democrats on Wednesday (Jan 29) plan to unveil a five-year, US$760 billion (S$1 trillion) framework for rebuilding the nation’s highways, airports and other infrastructure, laying out an election-year package with little chance of enactment after bipartisan talks with the White House on the issue failed to gain traction.

The outline, billed as the Moving Forward Framework, provides a foundation for legislation that is currently being drafted or debated in House committees, according to a senior Democratic aide who was familiar with the plans, but was unauthorised to discuss them before a public announcement on Wednesday.

It is the product of a collaboration led by representatives Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee; and Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“This is not just about fixing our roads and bridges,” the three said in a joint statement. “It is about seizing the opportunity to make transformational changes in communities of all sizes, in every corner of our country.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, will formally announce the plan on Wednesday, after a closed-door presentation to the House Democratic caucus.

Democrats will also renew calls for bipartisan talks with the White House to forge an agreement on infrastructure, the aide said, including a mechanism to pay for it.

But after they struck an initial deal with President Donald Trump last spring to pursue a US$2 trillion package, talks faltered over how to finance the initiative, and the President stormed out of a meeting on the topic, declaring that he could not work with Democrats until they stopped investigating him.

“We thought we would be able to move in a positive way on this,” Ms Pelosi said at a news conference this month. “So far, they have not come on board. However, we’ve decided now, we’ll just have to go forward.”

The renewed push for agreement on an infrastructure plan comes as Democrats, eager to shift the focus from the divisive impeachment proceedings against Mr Trump, are mapping out an election-year agenda that showcases their policy priorities.

It is highly unlikely that the plan will prompt a genuine round of negotiations with the Republican-led Senate and the White House that would yield legislation that could be signed into law before the election.

But the rollout suggests that Democrats intend to spend the coming months passing a slate of popular infrastructure Bills to show voters, then seek to blame Republicans and the White House if they fail to succeed.

The 19-page plan to be proposed by Democrats includes US$329 billion for investment in transportation systems, including improving safety measures for bicyclists and pedestrians, and US$105 billion for transit agencies and maintenance needs.

The framework also includes US$55 billion in railway investments for both the expansion of the country’s passenger rail network and improvement of Amtrak stations and services, US$19.7 billion for the upkeep of harbours and ports, US$86 billion for the expansion of broadband access and additional funds to address greenhouse gas pollution and increase climate resiliency.

There will also be US$21.4 billion for the preservation of clean drinking water and communities dealing with toxic chemicals that can contaminate drinking water, known as PFAS. Democrats struggled to include stronger regulations for PFAS in must-pass defence policy legislation late last year, and passed a stand-alone measure to do so in early January.

And while the framework also includes transportation and infrastructure legislation routinely addressed by Congress, Democrats made a point of emphasising efforts to counter climate change and its effects.

An infrastructure plan has been an elusive goal for both the Trump administration and Congress over the past three years.

The phrase “Infrastructure Week” has become something of a joke that encapsulates the dysfunction of Washington in the Trump era, after the White House repeatedly scheduled one during Mr Trump’s first two years in office, only to have it overshadowed by a jarring comment by the President or a damaging revelation about him.

Nine months before Election Day, a US$1 trillion infrastructure plan is still one of Mr Trump’s unfulfilled promises from his inaugural campaign.

The Senate has begun work on its own infrastructure legislation, with one highway Bill passing unanimously out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this session. That Bill authorises US$287 billion over five years, and includes provisions for road safety and programs to maintain and repair roads and bridges.

The template to be announced on Wednesday is the first significant overture by Democrats on the issue since the blowup at the White House in May, when the President said he would not strike a compromise on infrastructure while Democrats were working to investigate him.

“I walked into the room and I told Senator Schumer and Speaker Pelosi: ‘I want to do infrastructure. I want to do it more than you want to do it. I’d be really good at that, that’s what I do. But you know what? You can’t do it under these circumstances. So get these phony investigations over with,’ ” the President said at the time.

Mr Neal has spoken with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in recent months, in part about the financial mechanisms necessary for the infrastructure plan, according to a person familiar with the conversations but unauthorised to discuss them publicly.

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