WASHINGTON — As the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill steams toward a vote in the Senate this week, Utah's two Republican senators have come at President Joe Biden's effort to fix the nation's roads, bridges and utilities from contrasting perspectives.
Sen. Mitt Romney has been in the room negotiating the massive package one item at a time with Democrats, Republicans and the White House. By his estimation, the bipartisan group of senators have met via Zoom or in person 50 times in the past four months, including marathon sessions this past weekend.
"I must admit I was skeptical that we could reach an agreement because there have been so many efforts in the past to do infrastructure," he said in an interview.
As some Democrats have called for an end to the Senate filibuster and say Republicans won't work with them, Romney said the compromise bill "proves that they're wrong."
Utah wouldn't have had a seat at the table if Democrats acted alone on infrastructure. Our bipartisan bill limits spending on bad policy that only benefits the coastal cities, and brings home measures to improve wildfire prevention and drought mitigation. pic.twitter.com/e6f6IMlY6v— Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) August 2, 2021
Sen. Mike Lee has criticized the proposal from the beginning as too expensive. He bemoaned the fact that the senators didn't receive the 2,702-page bill until late Sunday, posting several times on Twitter, "WHERE IS THE BILL." Senators, he said, will have little time to review it or make changes — he proposed an alternative plan Tuesday that was promptly voted down by Democrats and Republicans — before Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., calls for the vote.
Lee suggested that any lawmaker who votes for the bill ought to be required to carry it around for a few years "given that it will take Americans years to pay for all this. Either way, this is an enormous bill whether measured by weight, volume, cost, duration, any way you look at it."
Lee and Romney have had conversations with each other about the legislation.
"We see this differently, and that's just fine," Romney said.
Formally called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the bill is a key part of Biden's agenda. It calls for $550 billion in new spending over five years above projected federal levels, making it one of the biggest expenditures on the nation's roads, bridges, water systems, broadband and the electric grid in years.
None of the previous three presidents going back to George W. Bush have been able to push through a large-scale infrastructure plan.
Romney was tasked during the negotiations with water issues and financing the massive plan.
"We looked high and low for ways to pay for this," he said.
The proposal would be largely financed through unspent COVID-19 relief funds, selling government broadband rights, targeted corporate user fees and aggressive prosecution of unemployment fraud, among other sources.
Romney said the plan is "entirely paid for" and won't raise taxes or add to the national debt.
Lee isn't buying it.
"I wish that were true," he told KSL Newsradio's Boyd Matheson on "Inside Sources."
Advocates of the legislation have gone to great lengths to say the bill spends $550 billion when in fact it spends $1.2 trillion, Lee said.
"But as I look at the paid for items in there, I see a lot of holes in them. I see a lot of places where they don't have money coming in," he said, adding in some cases fees can't be meaningfully distinguished from a tax.
Lee fears there's lots of stuff hidden in the bill's 2,700 pages. And he suspects a large portion of the money goes to projects that would be less costly and more efficiently done at the state and local level. Federal regulations, he said, drive up the cost of a project as much as 30%.
He proposed an amendment Tuesday to reduce the federal gas tax by more than 11 cents per gallon, return the national Highway Trust Fund to solvency, speed up and simplify National Environmental Policy Act requirements and remove long-standing federal wage rules.
The Senate has a choice, Lee said in floor speech. It can pay less to build more or choose to continue the current path saddling Americans with debt, inflation and taxes.
"At the end of the day, we just want more of our tax dollars going to funding steel and concrete to go into the ground so that America's moms and dads can spend less time stuck in gridlock traffic and more time with their families," he said.
Romney said the bipartisan bill isn't perfect. Republicans and Democrats had to make concessions to reach a compromise. He said he doesn't like how much the plan costs, but if Democrats had their way, they would spend a lot more money.
The Democrats could go it alone with their razor-thin majority in the Senate, but Biden wants to demonstrate that lawmakers can work on a bipartisan basis, he said.
"This is good for Utah. It's good for the country. And, one more very important point, if we didn't do this, the Democrats would do this in reconciliation with no Republican votes," Romney said.
Budget reconciliation is a procedure that overrides the filibuster rules in the Senate that may otherwise require 60 votes to pass most legislation.
The plan would provide the state $3 billion for roads and highways, $200 million for running water to homes on the Navajo Nation and $50 million for the Central Utah Project, which Romney said was almost left out of the final version of the bill. Hundreds of millions of dollars would also be headed to Utah for broadband expansion, wildfire management and mitigation and public transit.
"There's no question that being in the room makes a difference," Romney said.
Various Utah leaders in transportation, public transit, water and business have expressed support for the bill as has Republican Gov. Spencer Cox.
"We're thrilled with $$ for the Navajo Utah Water Settlement to bring drinking water to our Navajo neighbors. Also happy to see other Utah priorities, like the Central Utah Project and $$ for water storage, drought & fire mitigation," Cox tweeted.
Romney said he's confident the Senate will pass the bill and that Biden will make sure House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., doesn't kill it.
"It will be up to the White House to make sure the compromise legislation survives the House," he said.