On Thursday, four Republican senators unveiled a counteroffer to President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion infrastructure and climate plan — currently the president’s only proposal to scale back greenhouse gas emissions. Biden’s plan used to cost roughly half a trillion dollars more, but he pared it down last week in an effort to jumpstart bipartisan negotiations. The new GOP plan, spearheaded by Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, offers the White House $928 billion in total spending over the next eight years — a boost from the $568 billion Capito proposed in April.
It certainly looks like Republicans and Democrats are engaging in some honest-to-god political compromise: Biden started out with a big number and made it smaller, Republicans started with a small number and made it bigger. But closer investigation reveals that Republicans haven’t compromised very much at all.
Nearly $1 trillion in spending sounds like a lot, but the lion’s share of the money Republicans want to spend on infrastructure isn’t new — it’s money that already gets budgeted out by Congress for infrastructure improvements every year and “leftover” money from previous COVID-19 relief bills. The assumption that there are wads of coronavirus money languishing in federal and state coffers is flawed, experts say. There is a lot of relief money that hasn’t been spent, but much of it will be spent in the coming years on Medicaid, federal lending programs, and state and local relief programs. Democrats believe that there is only $200 billion in unclaimed COVID-19 relief funds floating around.
If you’re operating under the assumption that there isn’t a huge stack of coronavirus relief cash waiting to be spent, as Democrats are, then the Republican counteroffer looks less like an olive branch and more like a slap in the face. Capito and company are proposing just $257 billion in new federal spending.
That’s not a lot of money to work with, especially since Biden’s original plan envisioned an aggressive and sweeping campaign to simultaneously shore up the nation’s ailing infrastructure and put the U.S. economy on course for a greener future. The central pillar of Biden’s climate agenda is a push to reach net-zero emissions in the U.S.’s electricity sector by 2035 — an ambitious and, according to scientists, necessary goal. And Biden still wants to establish job training programs for clean energy industries, create a nationwide electric vehicle charging system, and build new energy-efficient affordable housing units. He wants to decarbonize the power grid and invest in natural climate solutions, like soil carbon sequestration and wetland restoration. And he aims to pay for these things with new taxes on ultra-wealthy Americans and corporations.
Based on the details in the new GOP counteroffer, Republicans don’t want any of that. Their proposal would direct $755 billion toward “traditional” infrastructure — $506 billion for roads and bridges, $144 billion for public transit and rail, $56 billion for airports, $22 billion for ports and waterways, and the rest on other miscellaneous transportation-related issues. The smallest line item in that category by far is electric vehicles. Republicans are proposing $4 billion toward electric vehicle infrastructure — $170 billion less than Biden wants to spend on EVs.
In addition to that $755 billion, the GOP is willing to spend $94 billion on water infrastructure like lead pipe replacement, $65 billion on broadband internet access, and $14 billion on resilience — an ill-defined category that could include natural disaster preparedness for at-risk communities. That about sums up the Republican counteroffer. Biden’s plan would spend billions more on each of those categories. The conservative senators didn’t earmark any money for Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps idea, green affordable housing, or clean electricity. And the counteroffer would commit exactly zero dollars to research and development, one of a few rare areas of bipartisan agreement when it comes to climate policy.
The negotiations are not over. Republicans and Democrats could be haggling over these details into the fall. It seems like the White House is, thus far, committed to passing an infrastructure package the traditional way — with Republican and Democratic votes. But Biden is well aware that bipartisan negotiations don’t always translate into bipartisan votes. In 2008 and 2009, the Obama administration spent months negotiating health care reform with congressional Republicans. The bill ultimately passed without a single Republican vote. If Democrats start seeing dead-end signs, they could begin to look more seriously at ways of passing Biden’s infrastructure package that don’t require Republican support.