President Joe Biden met in the Oval Office Thursday morning with senators and others who will be key to moving his climate and infrastructure goals through Congress, but after the meeting officials made clear that they still are figuring out just how big to go with any eventual legislative package, illustrating the challenges ahead.
Biden campaigned on a $2 trillion package that married infrastructure investments with sweeping climate change goals and other items such as broadband deployment. But now that policymakers are beginning talks on how to turn that into reality, they are confronted with the same set of obstacles that have dogged prior attempts, chief among them how to pay for everything they want to do.
After the meeting, White House press secretary Jen Psaki demurred when pressed about the administration’s price tag for the plan they’re cooking up.
Calling it a “process and ongoing discussion,” she said the meeting was a reflection of the importance of the issue to Biden.
“But I don’t have a number for you, we’re not at that stage in the process yet.”
Present at the meeting were Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) and ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), along with Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who are expected to be the chair and ranking member on the subcommittee that oversees transportation. Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also attended — Buttigieg remotely, since he is quarantining after a possible coronavirus exposure.
In an interview after the meeting, Cardin made it clear that revenues remain a sticking point and said that the EPW Committee will need help from the taxwriters on the Finance Committee to figure out funding.
“I raised the issue that would be good if we could do some of this during the Covid relief package to get us started, recognizing that it’s going to be a challenge to make sure that we have adequate revenues to fund transportation moving forward,” he said in an interview after the meeting broke.
Cardin, who said Carper shared a proposed schedule for moving a legislative package forward at the meeting, stressed that there is not yet consensus on how any package will move. He acknowledged that it could be broken into several smaller packages, saying “we need to make sure that we can get bipartisan support“ and that “sometimes by making things in smaller packages you have a better chance, as we’ve done with transportation and water on EPW.”
Cardin also noted that “infrastructure is more than just transportation; it includes also our schools, it includes broadband, it includes our water infrastructure“ — but said no decisions have been made about the scope of a package.
With Democrats now in the majority, Carper has said he plans to make significant changes to the surface transportation bill, S. 2302 (116), that the EPW Committee approved unanimously in July 2019.
“Our staffs are going to exchange information,” Cardin said. “The president said he was going to take a look at what we did last year, he may have some suggestions, would we consider those suggestions, and we said, ‘absolutely.‘”
At the Oval Office meeting, Biden said that the EPW committee "is central to everything that’s going to happen" on infrastructure and asserted that infrastructure should be nonpartisan.
"I’ve been around long enough … that infrastructure wasn’t a Republican or a Democratic issue," he said.
Biden cited "a number of things out there that the American people are looking for us to step up" including "a lot of bridges in West Virginia" and "a lot of dangerous spots on Route 9 in terms of Cancer Alley“ in Louisiana.
"There’s a lot we have to do," Biden said, according to a pool report.
Biden also said that he talked to Chinese President Xi Jinping Wednesday night "for two straight hours,” and cited China’s "major new initiatives" on rail and their work on emerging vehicle technology.
“We don’t get moving, they’re going to eat our lunch," he said.
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