Republicans tell Buttigieg that Biden's infrastructure bill should focus on roads, rail, ports - not climate or social justice

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WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans are pushing back against the Biden administration's ambitious infrastructure proposal, warning that any plan that strays from core transportation priorities to one that tackles climate change and social justice won't get GOP support.

"I don't think the bill can grow into a multi-trillion-dollar catch-all," Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, the top Republican on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee said Thursday. "A transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill, not a Green New Deal. It needs to be about roads and bridges."

Graves spoke during a hearing where Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg laid out broad priorities for – but few details of – President Joe Biden's wide-ranging $3 trillion infrastructure bill designed not only to repair bridges and modernize railways but also to drive the transition to a clean energy economy.

"In the United States, transportation is the leading contributor to climate change, contributing to a pattern of extreme weather events, which takes a severe toll on our infrastructure," Buttigieg told the committee. "Every dollar we spend rebuilding from a climate-driven disaster is a dollar we could have spent building a more competitive, modern, and resilient transportation system that produces significantly lower emissions."

Pete Buttigieg was confirmed as Transportation Secretary Tuesday as the first openly gay Cabinet secretary to be confirmed by the Senate. Seen here, Pete Buttigieg takes part in a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington.
Pete Buttigieg was confirmed as Transportation Secretary Tuesday as the first openly gay Cabinet secretary to be confirmed by the Senate. Seen here, Pete Buttigieg takes part in a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington.

Biden is expected to unveil the initial pieces of his economic agenda next week in Pittsburgh where White House press secretary Jen Psaki said he will deliver a speech "laying out more details of his plan to build the economy back better."

Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda – a slogan Biden coined on the campaign trail – includes several components, according to Psaki: Upgrades to aging infrastructure such as roads, bridges, rail and cyber equipment; a tax code overhaul that benefits workers; a boost for caregivers; increased access to health care; and clean energy investments.

More: More than 45,000 bridges rated in poor condition, but President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan may hit snag

The prospect of a bill to rebuild highways, repair crumbling bridges and modernize the nation's rail systems is viewed by both parties as an opportunity for a bipartisan moment in a Congress wracked by political acrimony. But even that may be difficult.

Republicans still fume about the way they feel Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, known as the American Rescue Plan, was jammed through the Democratic-controlled Congress without a single GOP vote.

Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., told Buttigieg infrastructure must not be handled in the same manner.

"I just came back from a motorcycle ride – my first of the season – and I can reaffirm for you the obvious that our roads and bridges in this country suck. They need a lot of work," Katko said. "And we can't do it in a partisan manner because its too big an issue for us."

More: Biden putting final touches on potential $3 trillion economic, infrastructure package as Buttigieg heads to the Hill

Republicans have little appetite for a bill that could add to a national debt already above $28 trillion. And any tax or fee increases Biden or Democrats might propose to help pay for the costs are likely dead on arrival in a Senate that will need at least 10 Republicans to overcome a legislative hurdle known as the filibuster.

Asked during Thursday's hearing about how the bill would be financed, Buttigieg said it could rely on a combination of sources including user fees (such as gas taxes), revenues from other taxes that comes through the general budget, or borrowing.

"The bulk of any proposal will amount to whatever Congress is prepared to authorize (on) any combination of those sources," he said.

It's not just House Republicans who are resistant to Biden's proposal.

GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, said he's wary of another mammoth bill that could be a vehicle to promote a liberal agenda, including free community college, universal pre-kindergarten and paid family leave.

“We’re hearing the next few months might bring a so-called 'infrastructure' proposal that may actually be a Trojan horse for massive tax hikes and other job-killing left-wing policies," he said on the Senate floor Monday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she wants "a strong bipartisan bill" but won't take out provisions addressing social justice or climate aspects for the sake of placating Republicans.

"We cannot settle just for what we can agree on without recognizing that this has to be a bill for the future, that we have to recognize the climate crisis and what we can do," she told reporters on a press call.

The country’s total infrastructure needs over the decade are approaching $6 trillion or about $2.6 trillion more than what the public and private sectors are projected to spend, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

If not addressed, ASCE projects the "overdue infrastructure bill" will cost each American household approximately $3,300 per year in lost productivity and higher prices for goods and services.

More: Coronavirus cuts transportation funding, puts major road and bridge projects on hold

In addition, the Texas Transportation Institute, which studies commute times, says the extra 54 hours spent idling in traffic costs each commuter $1,080 on average in wasted time and fuel.

One idea gaining traction is changing the way motorists are charged to use roads, bridges and tunnels.

The current system relies primarily on the gas tax where drivers pay for the fuel they use. But with the increase of fuel-efficient electric vehicles and Biden's push to wean the country off fossil fuels, Democrats and Republicans are warming to the idea of charging based on a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) system that charges based on how far people go.

Buttigieg said that's an idea under consideration but said concerns about privacy and technology have yet to be resolved.

"We've got a little work to do," he told the committee.

Contributing: Joey Garrison

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden infrastructure plan must focus on roads, rail, Republicans say