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Biden Unveils What He Calls A 'Once-In-A-Generation' Infrastructure Proposal

President Biden delivers a speech Wednesday unveiling his infrastructure proposal at a carpenter's training center in Pittsburgh. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Biden delivers a speech Wednesday unveiling his infrastructure proposal at a carpenter's training center in Pittsburgh. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Updated March 31, 2021 at 5:31 PM ET

The country's infrastructure is badly in need of repair, both major parties agree. But for years they haven't been able to agree on a proposal, or how to pay for it.

In Pittsburgh on Wednesday, President Biden detailed a $2 trillion package that he said would lead to "transformational progress." Biden said this is "not a plan that tinkers around the edges," calling it a "once-in-a-generation investment" that will lead to "good-paying jobs" and "grow the economy."

He framed his effort as along the lines of other investments the federal government has made in history, such as the space race in the middle of the 20th century.

Biden said his proposal would be paid for in 15 years by raising taxes on corporations. He said he's open to other ideas, but Biden vowed Wednesday that no one making less than $400,000 a year would see their taxes increased. "Period," he said.

The president pointed out that millions have lost their jobs during the pandemic, while the top 1% gained in wealth. He said that "shows how distorted" the U.S. economy is.

"Well, it's time to change that," Biden said, adding, "It's time to build our economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not the top down."

The proposed taxes and the scope of Biden's plan — and where the money would go — are already rankling Republicans. The proposal has a heavy focus on climate change and the environment — including transitioning the auto sector from gasoline-based vehicles to electric, the creation of a Climate Conservation Corps and incentivizing private investments in wind and solar power.

The effort to encourage the transition from gas to electric vehicles alone would get more money — $174 billion — than the plan would spend on repairs to highways and bridges — about $115 billion.

"A transportation bill, I think, needs to be a transportation bill, not a Green New Deal," Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said during a recent hearing with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. "It needs to be about roads and bridges."

Biden's proposal includes $100 billion for expanding high-speed broadband, $100 billion for new school buildings and upgrades, and $100 billion for expansion of and improvements to power lines. It also has measures intended to fix racial injustices, such as replacing all of the country's lead pipes and service lines, and $105 billion for improving and expanding mass transit, as well as reconnecting neighborhoods that had been decimated and cut off from surrounding areas due to highway construction.

"A Trojan horse"

The $2 trillion plan is one of two complementary measures the White House is rolling out that's intended to overhaul the economy. A second package focused on education, child care and other social programs is expected in coming weeks.

So far, there is little Republican support for what Biden has introduced.

"It's like a Trojan horse," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in Kentucky on Wednesday before Biden's speech. "It's called infrastructure, but inside the Trojan horse it's going to be more borrowed money, and massive tax increases on all the productive parts of our economy."

McConnell said Biden called him Tuesday to talk about the plan — reportedly just the second time they've spoken since the president was inaugurated.

Biden confirmed that he spoke with McConnell and noted that there is Republican support for infrastructure — and yet nothing has gotten done in recent years.

"Why haven't we done it?" the president asked. "No one wants to pay for it."

Biden said he wants to engage in "good-faith negotiations with any Republican who wants to get this done, but we have to get it done," he said with emphasis.

"I hope Republicans will join this effort," he added, noting that he hopes businesses join, too, and that it gets broad American support.

How some on the left feel

Without GOP support, it's unclear if Democrats would seek to pass the proposal through the Senate along party lines. For as many issues as Biden will have with Republicans in trying to get support for this plan, he also has to watch his left flank.

"It's disappointing," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben before the package's unveiling. "The size of it is disappointing. It's not enough."

While she said she likes some of what's in the measure, such as improving water supplies, she overall described the amount of money it would allocate as "papitas, little French fries. It's nothing."

Ocasio-Cortez said she believes, in fact, that as much as $10 trillion is not even that "progressive." That's a number several Democratic presidential primary candidates used for their infrastructure and climate change proposals. There is already a $10 trillion measure put forward by Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan.

"I think it's just the floor," Ocasio-Cortez said, noting that this is a "planetary crisis, and we're the richest country in the world."

Labor leaders, who were crucial to helping Biden win the presidency, have largely come out in support of the package.

"We are cognizant that workers will disproportionately suffer if we do not make the transition to a green economy in the right way," United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble said in a statement, adding, "We also need to ensure that this transition is stable, reliable and creates quality union wage jobs and flexible to market demand not relying on a one-size fits all solution."

Terry O'Sullivan, head of the Laborers' International Union of North America, praised the measure, saying it "will restore our economy and create hundreds of thousands of good union jobs."

But he also noted: "We also look forward to working with the Administration on insisting that the renewable industry does not short-change and cheat working men and women of good family-supporting pay and benefits on the jobs building this infrastructure."

Copyright NPR 2021.

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