(Bloomberg) -- Union leaders and transportation advocates have looked to President-elect Joe Biden and his former Senate colleague Mitch McConnell for possible action next year on a major infrastructure package.
Yet, as President Donald Trump and allies including McConnell refuse to recognize Biden as the election winner, hopes are fading for an early bipartisan breakthrough on a significant infusion of funding for bridges, highways and airports.
Trump himself had pressed earlier in his tenure to advance an infrastructure deal, something that had eluded Washington policy makers for years, yet the effort fell short as he and Democratic leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi parted ways over how to pay for it.
Under his $2 trillion Build Back Better proposal for reviving the U.S. economy, Biden envisions investing in schools, water systems, municipal transit and universal broadband. Moving that through Congress, though, would require extensive cooperation with Republicans, especially Majority Leader McConnell -- who since May has spurned a comparably sized pandemic relief package pushed by Pelosi.
“McConnell wasn’t too excited about doing an infrastructure package with Trump, so I am not sure why he would be suddenly excited to work on an infrastructure package with Biden,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and partner of the Washington-based EFB Advocacy lobbying firm. “So, I am bit skeptical.”
With a one-year extension of highway funding to expire next year, union leaders and transportation advocates still see reason for hope. They’re looking to the prospect that McConnell and Biden -- who served seven terms in the U.S. Senate -- could rediscover the bipartisan mojo that they used to seal deals during Obama administration.
Biden highlighted infrastructure in an economic summit Nov. 16 with business and union leaders via teleconference.
“We can also modernize infrastructure, roads, bridges, ports. 1.5 million new affordable housing units,” he said. “High-speed broadband, we talked about, for every American household, which is more important than ever for remote learning, remote working, telemedicine in the 21st century. Building a digital infrastructure to help businesses, health-care workers, first responders and students.”
Most Americans favor additional investment in public works. A February 2020 poll conducted by The Pew Charitable Trusts showed that 68% of U.S. residents support an increase in federal infrastructure spending. The poll was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic damaged the U.S. economy, however.
“Infrastructure is an issue where President-elect Joe Biden and Senator Mitch McConnell can find some common ground,” said Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department. “They should be able to do that.”
After serving together in the Senate for nearly three decades, Biden was frequently the Obama administration’s emissary to Capitol Hill when the former president needed to cut deals with McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. The question now is whether bipartisanship is still possible, especially if, as expected, Republicans maintain control of the Senate after a pair of runoff elections in Georgia.
The prospect so far doesn’t seem promising. Biden hasn’t even had a congratulatory call from his former Senate colleague, incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said in an interview with CNN’s “Situation Room” on Thursday. But Klain said Biden has talked to other Republican members of Congress, even as most of them refuse to congratulate him publicly.
“They’ve known each other for 30 years,” Klain said. “When the time is right for them to talk, they will not need an introductory coffee or get-to-know you session, that’s for sure.”
Biden’s transition team and McConnell’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the prospects for cooperation on infrastructure spending.
U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, expressed optimism that Biden will push hard to keep his campaign commitment to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, even if McConnell is initially recalcitrant.
“The President-elect has made it clear he is ready to work with Congress to deliver results for all Americans with bold investments in infrastructure that help everyone, from large metro areas dealing with unreliable transit and soon to be jam-packed highways, to rural communities that suffer from bridges in poor condition and deteriorating roads,” DeFazio said in a statement.
Washington has been mostly spinning its wheels on infrastructure spending under President Donald Trump.
A five-year, $305 billion transportation funding law was set to expire in 2020 but was extended until next year. The House passed a five-year, $494 billion surface transportation bill in July, but the measure has not been approved by the Senate.
Early in his term, Trump proposed a $1 trillion replacement -- funded mostly by private investment -- but the plan has been stuck in neutral.
Trump’s proposal called for federal spending of $200 billion over 10 years that administration officials said can be used to “incentivize” as much as $800 billion in private, state and local spending on infrastructure. At the plan’s core was the assumption that private companies would enter into “public-private” partnerships with local and state governments.
Biden, a supporter of rail projects, has been closely associated with Amtrak -- he used to take it back and forth from Washington to his home in Delaware so often he earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe.” He promises on his transition website that his administration will “mobilize American ingenuity to build a modern infrastructure and an equitable, clean energy future.”
If it comes to pass, it would be a far cry from repeated declarations of “infrastructure week” by the Trump White House that were quickly subsumed by unrelated events.
“We have to get past the point where infrastructure week is a running joke,” Willis said. “It’s one of the backbones of our economy and it employs thousands of our members with good paying jobs.”
A cash infusion would appease state governments that have seen gas tax revenues plummet as Americans cut back on traveling in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund’s balance has fallen 56.5% so far this year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The highway fund, which is used to distribute money to states, is supported by the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax.
“It’s one of the few areas Republicans and Democrats should still be able to come together and agree on,” Jim Tymon, chief operating officer and director of policy and management for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said during a post-election transportation policy forum organized by his group.
Window for Compromise
The federal government usually spends about $50 billion per year on roads nationwide, but the federal gas tax only brings in $34 billion. The gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and there was little appetite in Washington for increasing it even before the pandemic led to an economic slowdown.
Congress has turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the infrastructure funding gap, most recently transferring $70 billion to help cover five years’ worth of transportation spending that will now run out in 2021.
John Porcari, a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation in the Obama administration who advised the Biden campaign, said during the AASHTO event that he thinks there are “real prospects for a bipartisan, broad infrastructure package” in the early days of Biden’s administration.
But the window for a bipartisan infrastructure compromise “is probably pretty short,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist with the bipartisan Grassroots Midwest consulting firm in Michigan.
“The first six months of the Biden administration are the best chance to get any legislation of consequence done,” he said. “There’s an incentive for every incumbent facing a potentially competitive election in 2022 to have an accomplishment or two that they can run on back home.”
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