House Dems Eye $760B Transpo Funds In 4th Virus Relief Bill

By Linda Chiem
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Law360 (April 1, 2020, 6:09 PM EDT) -- House Democrats said Wednesday that the next round of COVID-19 relief legislation will be anchored by $760 billion to rebuild the nation's highways, railways, airports, water and broadband infrastructure, while also tackling climate change, asserting that their proposal will jump-start the American economy.

A day after President Donald Trump renewed his support for a bold infrastructure package, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democratic leaders outlined their plan to include a massive infrastructure investment component in the next economic relief bill that Congress is expected to negotiate in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The Democrats will build on a 19-page blueprint, dubbed the Moving Forward Framework, they first unveiled in January that called for investing $760 billion over five years to rehabilitate aging and inefficient surface transportation infrastructure while cutting carbon pollution across the transportation sector.

An extra $10 billion is expected to be included for community health centers, along with $40 billion for improving water quality and $86 billion to expand broadband access, especially in rural areas, according to House Democrats.

"We need to invest in our infrastructure to address some of the critical impacts and vulnerabilities in America that have been laid bare by the coronavirus," Pelosi said on a Wednesday conference call with reporters.

She indicated that House leaders were eager to get working on the bill, which would be Congress' fourth legislative package addressing the COVID-19 crisis, as soon as lawmakers return from recess to Washington, D.C., on April 20.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans have tamped down talk of diving into a fourth bill when the third and most recent bill, the sprawling $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, just became law on March 27 and hasn't yet been fully implemented.

McConnell made his position clear during appearances with conservative outlets and talk show hosts, such as telling Fox News Radio host Guy Benson on Tuesday, "What I disagree with the speaker on is she's already saying we need to work on phase four. Well look, the current law has not been in effect for even a week yet.

"I mean the implementation of this — the Treasury Department's got a massive, complicated problem here in getting all of this money out rapidly. And the speaker is already talking about phase four. Well, we may need a phase four, but we're not even fully into phase three yet. This was the third coronavirus bill that we've passed, and the biggest one by far."

The CARES Act focuses on providing economic relief to individuals, businesses, industries, and state and local governments hammered by the pandemic. In early March, Congress enacted the first bill providing $8.3 billion in emergency funding to boost testing and support state health care agencies' response efforts. It was quickly followed by a second bill, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which expanded family medical and paid sick leave for American workers affected by the virus.

The Democrats have their eye on a fourth package that they say will lay the foundation for a robust economic rebound, as government stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates have brought many industries to a halt. Earlier this week, the Democrats said they'll also demand the federal government furnish health care workers with personal protective equipment and raise health industry safety standards in the fourth bill.

"This is investment, this is capital. We can justify this more than tax cuts, even more than some of the mitigation we did in the CARES package," said Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., on Wednesday's call. "This is rebuilding America, preparing us for the 21st century in so many ways. We want to put people first, workers first, and nothing does that more than the investments we're talking about here.

"And make no mistake, this is an incredible economic blow to America," he added. "What we've done has mitigated some of that damage but we're going to need a longer term recovery package and we have to be more resilient in the future, which we can with this package."

On Tuesday, Trump called on Congress to get the ball rolling on an envisioned $2 trillion infrastructure bill, pointing out that low interest rates and the pandemic should spur action on a campaign promise that has largely taken a backseat to other policy priorities.

"With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill," Trump tweeted. "It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!"

However, neither the administration nor lawmakers have spelled out how to bankroll a sprawling infrastructure package in the midst of the pandemic and a probable global recession.

There's some urgency to address how to pay for infrastructure given that the most recent long-term surface transportation funding legislation — the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act — is set to expire at the end of September.

Despite overwhelming bipartisan support, reaching an agreement on how to pay for transportation and infrastructure upgrades has been a long shot on Capitol Hill. A major priority is figuring out how to replenish the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for surface transportation projects nationwide but does not bring in enough money from the federal gas tax to cover all the projects that need funding.

The fund takes in about $38 billion a year from the tax, according to the Congressional Budget Office, but that still falls short of annual demand. As a result, the Highway Trust Fund has often been propped up by cash infusions from the federal general fund and other sources, largely because Congress has refused to raise the gas tax — currently at 18.4 cents per gallon — since 1993.

"The trust fund is in deficit. We've been borrowing money to put into the trust fund just to maintain the deteriorating status quo," DeFazio said on Wednesday's call. "There's no one on either side of the aisle that doesn't believe our infrastructure needs to be reconstructed ... I don't think anyone is going to say we're not already in one heck of a recession, potentially a depression."

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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