WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told a divided House panel Thursday that the country’s infrastructure needs exceed $1 trillion and improvements to roads, bridges, and highways can no longer ignore the reality of climate change, calling inaction “a threat to our collective future.”
Buttigieg appeared before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in an opening gambit to sell Congress on President Biden’s infrastructure plan. Instead, the hearing exposed deep fault lines by party, testing Biden’s campaign promise to reach across the political aisle to address national problems.
Congress just passed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, but Buttigieg told lawmakers that a broader economic recovery will require a national commitment to fix and transform America’s infrastructure.
Addressing wary Republicans balking on spending trillions more for Biden’s biggest policy initiative, Buttigieg called the coming months “the best chance in any of our lifetimes to make a generational investment in infrastructure” and emphasized new investments to curb climate change.
“Climate change is real,” he said. “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.”
The panel’s top Republican, however, immediately drew a firm line in the sand, suggesting any Biden plan that includes broad green initiatives will be a nonstarter.
“A transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill — not the Green New Deal,” said Missouri Representative Sam Graves. “This needs to be about roads and bridges. . . . The more massive any bill becomes, the more bipartisanship suffers.”
Republicans tried to get more details on how the Biden administration plans to pay for infrastructure improvements, but Buttigieg was noncommittal, saying he understands that cooperation from Congress will be needed to “arrive at a healthy balance of how this can be at least partially paid for.”
Buttigieg addressed the committee as Biden meets with economic advisers this week on an emerging $3 trillion package of investments in infrastructure and domestic needs.
The administration’s current proposal, which remains preliminary, would break legislation on the priorities into different pieces, including an infrastructure component to boost roads, bridges, rail lines, electric-vehicle charging stations, and the cellular network, among other items, in a bid to attract Republican support. The goal would be to facilitate the shift to cleaner energy.
A second component would include investments in workers with free community college, universal pre-kindergarten, and paid family leave, said a person familiar with the options who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Still, Republicans are balking at the size and scope. Some Democrats have privately told the administration they will probably have to bypass Republicans and use their narrow party majorities in the House and Senate to pass infrastructure plans with the process known as budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority.
Biden is expected to provide details on his economic proposals in a speech next week.
Buttigieg, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 who was the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has been echoing Biden’s call to pass a bill with bipartisan support, stressing both economic and racial justice.
He said nearly 40,000 Americans die on unsafe or inadequate roads annually, while millions of others don’t have access to affordable transportation. The pandemic has stressed the transportation sector even more, he said, and “without action, it will only get worse.”
Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the Democratic chairman of the House transportation panel, told the hearing that lawmakers should be asking what consequences the country will suffer “for every day of delay.”
DeFazio said there is broad agreement the public wants the nation’s crumbling infrastructure to be rebuilt.
“They’re tired of potholes, they’re tired of detours, failed bridges, congestion, and all the problems,” DeFazio said. “They’re tired of water mains that blow up and sewer systems that back up into their homes. We can do this.”
At the same time, DeFazio said an infrastructure bill will need to focus on the challenges of the 21st century, a nod to climate change. He said the country shouldn’t just add lanes to highways, stressing “that’s not what this is going to be about.”
“Infrastructure is integral to the functioning of our economy and investing heavily in it at this moment in time is key to our nation’s recovery,” DeFazio said.
Asked Thursday whether Democrats intended to work with Republicans on infrastructure, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, stressed that ’'in areas where we can work with our Republican colleagues, we will.”
“Hopefully we can get them to work with us,’' he told reporters. ’'But as I said, if we can’t, we’re going to have to move forward.”
Last year, the House passed a $1.5 trillion package of public works improvements, but the Senate did not take it up after Republicans criticized it as embracing a “Green New Deal.” A Senate panel approved a far narrower measure, but it failed to advance.