Democrats to offer $760B infrastructure plan with big climate theme

House Democratic leaders are set to roll out their vision for a $760 billion, five-year infrastructure proposal that places a major emphasis on climate change, seizing on an issue that has become a growing concern for their party’s activists and presidential hopefuls.

The framework — coming two years after President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan sank without a trace on the Hill — comprises a hodgepodge of transportation and water legislation that Congress renews periodically, according to details confirmed by POLITICO. But Democrats are putting a green tint on each element of the proposal, checking boxes on their climate goals while attempting to show that they are steering away from impeachment talk and toward legislating on big issues.

House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) says the plan will be a radical departure from highway-focused transportation bills and will put clean energy and climate "resilience" at the center.

“It's going to be a definitive departure from our last 70 years, since Eisenhower, and it is going to set a path for the 21st century to defossilize transportation, which is the single largest contributor [of greenhouse gas emissions],” DeFazio told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “We're looking at every sector under my jurisdiction and attempting to meet the goals of the Green New Deal.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to announce the package Wednesday morning after meeting with the House Democratic caucus. The total price tag of the package was not immediately available, but Democrats are promising a “significantly increased investment” in the portion devoted to highways, rails and transit.

The climate plan, according to DeFazio, will include everything from making federal buildings carbon-neutral to transitioning to renewable fuels for aviation. He also wants to improve rail and transit options “as a more efficient way to move passengers than short-haul airlines and automobiles” and use more climate-friendly building materials, like concrete with coal ash that “actually absorbs carbon.”

Committee Republicans have indicated they’re interested in working together on the surface bill, including on climate elements — “they're saying, ‘don't count us out,’” DeFazio said. Yet on Tuesday, they issued their own statement of infrastructure principles absent any mention of climate priorities.

Climate resiliency, which involves protecting communities from the worst effects of climate change, could be a palatable entry point for Republicans, DeFazio said, “especially people from really vulnerable areas.” Those could include Transportation Committee ranking member Sam Graves of Missouri and key Republican committee member Garret Graves of Louisiana.

“We’ll see what they think about an ambitious electrification program, but they shouldn't have any objection to new, more climate friendly materials that are actually going to save the taxpayers money,” DeFazio speculated. “I think there's a lot of things we could agree on.”

Sam Graves told POLITICO he hadn’t seen the proposal but that he’s expressed to DeFazio that he’s “interested in working on anything.”

“I would call it climate change, but in deference to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, we'll just call it extreme weather events," DeFazio added.

The plan Democrats announce Wednesday will be their attempt to reboot an infrastructure effort they began last spring in concert with the White House. Democrats emerged jubilant from their first meeting with Trump on the subject because the president bid the Democrats up from $1.2 trillion to a $2 trillion price tag. But the entire effort fell apart in May after Trump threw Pelosi and other Democrats out of his office, following Pelosi's comments earlier that day accusing the president of perpetrating a “cover-up” and stonewalling congressional investigations.

Talking to reporters about the new infrastructure push two weeks ago, Pelosi expressed disappointment that “so far [Republicans] have not come on board.” But she expressed hope that the bipartisan cooperation on a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada would lead the White House to “be interested in cooperating in other ways."

The Democratic infrastructure push, though little more than an amalgamation of existing legislative efforts, is part of the Democrats’ 2020 plan to run on legislative achievements on issues most important to their voters. In the case of a green infrastructure package, they get to tout progress on climate as well as jobs, along with old-fashioned public works like fixing highways and making the trains run on time.

“What’s happening this week is a political statement as much as anything,” said an industry source familiar with the plan. “It’s not like it’s coming to the floor.”

“The focus here is reconnecting with the Obama/Tump voter in a, no pun intended, concrete way,” he went on.

The package Democrats will announce centers on a bill to authorize federal highway, rail and transit programs, which is meant to replace an existing $305 billion, five-year transportation package that expires Sept. 30. Besides climate change, DeFazio has said key parts of the bill would include local control, safety and keeping existing infrastructure in good repair.

DeFazio’s committee has been working closely with the Energy and Commerce Committee on wastewater and drinking water issues as well as a pipeline safety effort. Energy and Commerce is also expected to contribute a section on broadband. Other committees have been working on legislation dealing with schools, housing and parks, but it’s unclear whether those will move together.

So far, Democrats haven't produced any way to pay for the bill. Funding would be a conundrum even without the extra money they’re promising, as the Highway Trust Fund has been running dry for years because of the reduced purchasing power of the federal gasoline and diesel tax, which Congress last increased in 1993. DeFazio has proposed a plan to issue infrastructure bonds and pay them back by increasing fuel taxes and indexing them to inflation, but leadership has not yet endorsed that plan.

The absence of a concrete and politically palatable proposal on funding could doom this plan to the same fate as other campaign promises from every politician from Barack Obama to Trump. Raising the gas tax is a non-starter with both parties. The tax-writing Ways and Means Committee is holding a hearing Wednesday, just hours after the infrastructure plan announcement, to discuss funding options.

The Republican-controlled Senate already has a surface transportation bill that has been approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. That bill also has a climate title, for the first time ever.

Sam Mintz contributed to this report.

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