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On infrastructure, lofty ideas are colliding with congressional reality

Congress is starting the arduous task of turning President Biden's $2.25 trillion infrastructure blueprint into legislation, and it's proving complex. Above, reconstruction work on a bridge in Philadelphia.
Congress is starting the arduous task of turning President Biden's $2.25 trillion infrastructure blueprint into legislation, and it's proving complex. Above, reconstruction work on a bridge in Philadelphia.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Representative Thomas Suozzi, Democrat of New York, says he will oppose President Biden’s infrastructure package if a cap on state and local tax deductions is not erased. “No SALT, no deal,” he said.

Representative Cindy Axne, an Iowa Democrat, said she has pressed Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other officials to add money for biofuel infrastructure, which would help her state. “I am hoping this was an oversight and that they will support it,” she said.

Business lobbyists, meanwhile, are privately urging the White House to drop the $400 billion home- and elder-care provisions to cut the bill’s cost and the corporate tax hikes needed to fund it. “The home-care provisions have been heavily attacked and are just vulnerable right now,” acknowledged a White House adviser, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

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As Biden and Democratic lawmakers begin assembling a massive jobs bill that they hope will echo the New Deal and literally rebuild parts of America, they are quickly finding that their ambitions are colliding with the complicated reality of precisely how to do it.

Only now is Congress starting the arduous task of turning Biden's $2.25 trillion infrastructure blueprint into legislation, and it's proving inordinately complex. Even before pen has been put to legislative paper, some Democrats in the narrowly divided House are noisily raising demands, sensing a fleeting moment of leverage.

Republicans are talking through a bipartisan alternative, though they are deeply skeptical that Biden will engage. And the American Jobs Plan could merge with other ongoing efforts to craft a wide-ranging transportation bill, a process with its own set of competing agendas.

The many dynamics in play are setting the stage for a lengthy and laborious path for getting the American Jobs Plan to the president’s desk. Unlike Biden’s coronavirus relief package, which he signed in his seventh full week in office, there is no urgent deadline for an ambitious jobs plan on the scale the White House wants, all but guaranteeing the legislative fight will take months.

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Every day is an opportunity for Biden’s opponents to sling arrows at the infrastructure plan, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer will confront one of their toughest tasks yet in keeping their paper-thin majorities together.

“These are priorities of importance to the American people: air their children breathe, the job opportunities in building the infrastructure — but not only building it, the commerce that will flow from it — the broadband that we are in desperate need of, either in rural America, yes, but in urban deserts as well,” Pelosi said. “So that’s where our conversation is.”

Lawmakers and aides have already begun trying to turn the proposal, which is dauntingly vague in crucial areas, into legislative text. Still, the drafting is very preliminary, with many House committees planning hearings first. Some are waiting for the second portion of Biden's infrastructure package, which will focus on social programs, such as the child tax credit.

Congressional aides envision a process similar to that for the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, when sections were farmed out to relevant committees — as many as eight in the case of the infrastructure bill.

And House leaders are waiting for more definitive cues from the Senate parliamentarian, who largely decides what policies can be enacted under a fast-track process called reconciliation, which would circumvent the need for Republican votes in the Senate.

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The parliamentarian’s opaque rulings and seemingly broad powers have frustrated House Democrats, injecting uncertainty about what precisely will be allowed under reconciliation, which applies only to budget-related items.

“Reconciliation is not the answer for many of the things in Build Back Better,” said Representative Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, referring to Biden’s agenda. “There are myriad things you can’t do in reconciliation.”

If Democrats choose to pursue reconciliation, the committees’ separate measures would be packaged together by the House Budget Committee. But that decision probably won’t be made until there is more clarity from the parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough.

“We just don’t know how many trains are going to leave the station,” a House Democratic aide said.

While the legislative text is still in limbo, House Democrats are piping up with parochial demands. Many want to use the bill to undo a $10,000 cap on deductions for state and local taxes enacted by Republicans in the 2017 tax law.

So far, Suozzi is the lone lawmaker to say explicitly that he will oppose the infrastructure package if the cap is not eliminated, but other members are pushing hard to lift the cap, which disproportionately hits residents of Democratic, high-tax states.

But if the cap is lifted, the White House has hinted that House Democrats may have to offset what could be a costly move, because undoing the SALT cap would mean less tax money coming in.

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Democrats are optimistic they can find a way. “We’re not here to kill anything, but we sure as hell have put a marker down,” said Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey.

Democratic Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the House’s chief tax writer, does not plan to take a hardline stance in favor of repealing the Trump-era cap, said an aide, deferring instead to other Democrats who are loudly making their case.

Other state-specific interests have also emerged, such as Axne's demand for biofuel infrastructure. Axne said she has pressed not only Buttigieg but also Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and White House officials to include it in the bill.

And while the jockeying plays out, congressional committees are quietly preparing measures to address parts of the nation’s infrastructure — efforts predating the release of Biden’s plan on March 31 — that will help gauge Capitol Hill’s appetite for bipartisanship.

The first test comes this week, when the Senate expects to turn to a roughly $35 billion water infrastructure bill. Aiming to replace aging water pipes and bolster wastewater systems against natural disasters, it has broad bipartisan support, but it's smaller than what Biden has proposed.