Climate takes center stage in Dems’ sweeping infrastructure plan

Federal plan announced the day Whitmer outlined her road bonding plan

Susan J. Demas

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 announcement happened to take place hours before Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gave her second State of the State address in Lansing. Whitmer, who ran in 2018 on the message of “fixing the damn roads,” tried to get buy-in last year from the GOP-led Legislature on her 45-cent gas tax hike to no avail.

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So on Wednesday, she announced her “Rebuilding Michigan” plan for $3.5 billion in road bonds to finance major projects. On Thursday morning, the Michigan State Transportation Commission approved her request.

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

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence at the Detroit NAACP dinner | Andrew Roth

“I think everything we do should have an element of climate change,” U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) told the Advance Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “So our energy bills, our education bills, because of our classroom building infrastructure, obviously manufacturing … It has to be included.”

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.”

“We’re talking about electric cars,” Lawrence said. “You can’t have an electric car fleet if you don’t have a place to charge them.” Lawrence she’ll also be focused on upgrades to water infrastructure during the negotiations. 

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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 chemicals. 

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. 

U.S. Rashida Tlaib at the Detroit NAACP dinner | Andrew Roth

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) welcomed Democrats’ climate focus. 

“I think that’s incredibly important for my district,” she told the Advance. She called her district a “frontline community” for climate justice, pointing to environmental problems there like flooding homes and concerns about the safety of drinking water.

Environmental groups also 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. 

Whitmer expected to unveil road bonding plan in SOS speech

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 during tense investigations against him. U.S. 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. 

But Lawrence said she hopes that’s not the case. “It’s not that extreme. I’m hoping that it’s common-sense enough that they won’t put their head in the sand.”

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

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

“Of course” the climate language will make negotiations more difficult, said U.S. 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. 

Paul Mitchell

U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden) took a more conciliatory approach, however.

“It is no secret and everyone agrees aging infrastructure has long been an issue for the country, and I believe Congress can work together in a bipartisan fashion to develop a plan that addresses the 21st century needs of America,” he said.

“Since coming to Congress I have urged my colleagues to work collaboratively in our efforts to enact infrastructure legislation that delivers for the American people. As a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure I look forward to working with the chairman and ranking member and all my committee colleagues to produce bipartisan legislation that makes much needed changes to federal infrastructure policies.”

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) — a freshman who flipped a red seat in 2018 — tied the Dems’ federal plan to Whitmer’s infrastructure efforts.

“No matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or Independent, the urgent need to fix our roads and infrastructure is something we can all agree on,” Slotkin said. “This is a bipartisan issue in our communities, and it should be the same way in Congress — that’s why I’m eager to work with Republicans to pass a bipartisan bill that rebuilds our systems to last, and am glad to see Governor Whitmer continue to push for action to get our roads fixed as soon as possible.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin talks to reporters after her town hall at Oakland University | Laina G. Stebbins

And 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
Allison Stevens is a reporter for States Newsroom's Washington, D.C. bureau.
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.
Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.