Climate takes center stage in sweeping federal infrastructure plan

By: - January 30, 2020 12:01 am

A solar array. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON  — U.S. House Democrats this week unveiled plans to spend $760 billion over five years on infrastructure upgrades throughout the country. 

A central theme throughout their plan: combating climate change. 

The framework unveiled by Democrats on Wednesday prioritizes slashing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector while also boosting resiliency in the face of a changing climate. 

“It’s an opportunity to build climate into the whole infrastructure plan,” Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat from Alexandria, told the Mercury in a brief interview on Wednesday. “I think the public support for the infrastructure plan is going to be much higher if we … make sure that [combating climate change] is an essential design element.” 

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat who represents Northern Virginia’s 8th District, speaks at a town hall meeting last year in Alexandria. (Allison Stevens/ States Newsroom Washington Bureau)

Democrats hope to plow more than $34 billion into clean energy investments, including efforts to upgrade the electric grid to accommodate more renewable energy and grants for local governments to fund energy efficiency and conservation projects. 

The plan also seeks to invest $1.5 billion in electric vehicle infrastructure “to assist the transition to zero emissions vehicles.”

The sweeping package also aims to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on crumbling roads, bridges and tunnels around the country, while investing in mass transit, passenger rail, airports and water infrastructure projects. It would put $1 billion toward helping communities address contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. 

Securing a bipartisan deal on infrastructure could present one of the most significant opportunities this year to legislate on climate change, as most other initiatives have ground to a halt amid the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump and the upcoming 2020 elections. 

Environmental groups hailed the release of the Democrats’ infrastructure framework. 

“This plan would help us address climate change by making long-overdue investments in transportation, safe drinking water, and clean energy including preparing for more frequent extreme weather events,” said Stephanie Gidigbi, director of policy and partnerships in the Healthy People & Thriving Communities program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Democrats and Republicans alike are eager to find common ground on the issue, particularly some freshman lawmakers anxious to declare a tangible legislative success ahead of their 2020 reelection bids. 

But past infrastructure negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House have collapsed. Last May, Trump walked out of an infrastructure meeting with congressional Democrats, insisting they couldn’t work together while investigations of his administration proceeded. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) labeled the blowup a temper tantrum at the time. 

And playing up the climate change aspects of their legislation might make it tougher for House Democrats looking to get Republican support. 

Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Republican who represents Southwest Virginia’s 9th District, said Wednesday that he hadn’t yet read the Democrats’ plans, but he cautioned the House majority against passing something that’s “never going to see the light of day” in the Senate.

“If you make it so far to the left that the Senate won’t even consider it, what are we doing? If it comes out of here straight party line, the Senate’s not even going to look at it,” he said. 

Beyer cited Griffith as the least likely Republican in Virginia’s delegation to support climate change measures in an infrastructure bill, given the coal mining interests in Griffith’s southwestern Virginia district. 

But Beyer said it wouldn’t be “particularly hard” to bring Republicans like Rob Wittman and Denver Riggleman on board. 

Beyer pointed to the changing politics surrounding climate change in recent years. “We had a big climate hearing in [the House] Ways and Means [Committee] where everyone said — both parties — it’s real, it’s man-made, we have to do something.” 

Republicans and Democrats tend to favor different approaches to tackling the problem, Beyer added. “We tend more towards regulation; they tend more towards innovation.” 

But at least a few House Republicans this week suggested that Democrats’ focus on climate change would indeed make bipartisan compromise more difficult. 

“Why don’t we just focus on infrastructure in the infrastructure bill?” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) when asked about the climate provisions. 

“Of course” the climate language will make negotiations more difficult, said Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), who’s on Trump’s impeachment defense team. Lesko added that she’s not very optimistic about passing major legislation, given the heightened partisan tensions on Capitol Hill. 

“The rhetoric that is going on right now in this whole impeachment thing is just taking over everything,” she said. 

But Democrats say they’re optimistic about the effort’s chances this time around. 

“These are not message bills,” Pelosi insisted Wednesday at the Democrats’ press conference. “We are hoping that we will have the support of the Republicans and the president of the United States.” 

Allison Stevens contributed to this report. 


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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.