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Transit money emerges as last major hurdle in bipartisan Senate infrastructure deal

WASHINGTON – Senators say they are on the verge of finalizing a massive bipartisan infrastructure deal. But there is one major dispute that is holding him back: how much money to spend on public transport.

Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont., Said the main point of contention in the five-year $ 579 billion package was “the ratio” of money split between highways and transit.

Senators and councilors say Democrats want 80 percent of funds allocated to transportation projects for highways and 20 percent for transit, citing a precedent. Republicans want less than 20% to use public transport, saying that ratio has not been set.

“They don’t see the role of public transit that we’ve seen in a bipartisan way for almost 40 years,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio said Thursday. “They’re asking for a lot less money.… The Trump party has changed. They don’t want to invest in transit like this country has, really, since the Reagan years.”

“We need to invest now in cleaner buses.… We need zero emission buses. We need to start this process now,” he told reporters. “Frankly, the Republicans are standing in the way. Hopefully we can get a bipartisan deal. If we can’t, we’re doing these things in the reconciliation bill.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the GOP’s chief negotiator, said Republicans made a “generous offer” that calls for a “significant increase” in transit money over the next five years.

“Funding for public transit has yet to be resolved,” he said. “The Democrats, frankly, are not being reasonable in their demands right now.”

The dispute comes as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., promises to complete the legislation before the House recess for a scheduled August suspension. Negotiations have been underway for a month since a group of five Democrats and five Republicans announced an agreement on an infrastructure framework at the White House with the endorsement of President Joe Biden.

For Biden, the bill represents an opportunity to keep his promise to unify the parties around a major goal. For GOP senators, the infrastructure offers a rare openness to work with a Democratic president and meet the needs of voters, without too much risk of backlash from their ideological base.

But the transit issue has run into a wider political divide between Republicans, many of whom represent rural parts of the country where cars tend to be the only viable means of getting around, and Democrats, who represent disproportionately more heavily dependent urban areas. on public transport. Progressives have pushed for a higher ratio of transit funding in infrastructure talks to make the transportation sector greener.

“They’re kind of hooked on this right now,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, RS.D. “It’s just a problem that most – a lot of people who don’t have public transit don’t care and don’t like the way the funds are allocated and divided.”

Thune said it was “one of the latest blockages”, while also identifying broadband as an area where negotiators were finalizing details.

A senior Republican official close to the talks said that aside from the “big unresolved issue” of transit money, there were “only a few minor fires here and there, but other than that I think it’s done”.

House Democrats push back

House Democrats, who are not directly involved in the talks but receive updates, have also sounded the alarm on the transit issue – and have made it clear that their votes depend on a satisfactory resolution.

Some of them argue that financing transport is one of the main ways to tackle climate change and that national policies on highways and transport need to be reformed to deal with it. Transportation accounted for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency said.

“If you want to tackle the climate but you’re not dealing with the biggest polluter in terms of transportation, what do we do? So that’s the problem,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

Democrats in the Senate “need to be aware that if they go too far to the right to get 10 Republicans, they are sure to lose Democrats in the House,” Jayapal said.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., And other Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., And Schumer this week demanding increased funding for transportation .

“We will not solve these problems by continuing with the status quo and spending more money on a flawed and outdated system. We cannot afford to lock in freeway-centric policies that have failed for another five years.” , wrote the House Democrats in the letter. .

Representative Jared Huffman, D-Calif., Said there were concerns within the caucus.

“I want to stop before I throw a bunch of ultimatums and red lines, but worry? Absolutely,” he said.

“The schedule is limited”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., And the Tester both outlined early next week – ideally Monday – a target to start pushing the proposal forward in the chamber.

“If not, it will be another week of vacation. I told these guys the schedule is limited,” Tester said.

Despite the dispute, Portman seemed optimistic about reaching a deal, hopefully on Monday, which he said should include the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office’s final cost analysis.

“I’m excited to do this thing. It’s great for the country. It’s the right thing to do for our infrastructure, which is collapsing. Everyone knows we have to do it,” he said. he declared.

Senator Kevin Cramer, RN.D., said he trusted the negotiators and added that when it comes to paying for the legislation, “that path has been cleared, which was major.”

Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the task force, said they were “very close” to finishing.

“We had meetings last night. We have had meetings since early this morning,” she said on Thursday, adding that the group had indeed agreed on how to fund the deal and was drafting the text. “I am optimistic that by working all weekend we will be able to make a proposal on Monday.”

But Collins added, “I realize it’s never over until it’s over.”

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