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US House lawmakers debate infrastructure priorities amid White House feud

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US House lawmakers debate infrastructure priorities amid White House feud

Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives debated a Democratic infrastructure proposal May 22 that would provide billions of dollars to upgrade the country's electric grid. But prospects for the bill dimmed as President Donald Trump vowed not to work with congressional Democrats on infrastructure and other priorities until they stop investigating him.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow's America Act, or LIFT Act. The bill, which all 31 Democrats on the committee co-sponsored, would provide more than $33 billion for clean energy development. That total includes $23 billion for efficiency upgrades at homes and schools; $4 billion to modernize the grid to accommodate more renewable energy and improve resilience; and $4 billion to expand renewable energy use, including $2.25 billion to install solar panels in low-income and underserved communities.

The bill would also provide $1.5 billion to replace leaking natural gas pipelines and fund the development of an electric vehicle charging network.

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House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J.

Source: AP

"These investments will help us take an important step in combating the climate crisis, while also strengthening our economy, creating good-paying jobs and providing some much-needed relief to consumers on their energy bills," said Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J.

The proposal drew praise from some witnesses. Brian Wahler, who testified on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the LIFT Act would provide much-needed federal funding for infrastructure, with local governments often outperforming state and federal entities in raising revenue for those projects.

Jessica Eckdish, legislative director for the BlueGreen Alliance, said the LIFT Act "embodies" the group's infrastructure policy priorities, which include using "robust public investment" to help create family-sustaining jobs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making communities more resilient to climate change.

But GOP committee members took issue with the bill. Although the legislation addresses bipartisan priorities such as broadband deployment and development of renewable energy, "just authorizing more money to spend may not necessarily achieve what I believe are our shared infrastructure goals," said Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden, R-Ore.

Walden also said the committee should consider provisions to streamline permitting and reduce regulatory burdens for infrastructure projects, action he said would yield "immediate results."

More broadly, some Republicans thought the LIFT Act did not go far enough to revitalize U.S. infrastructure and fund cutting-edge energy technologies.

"You could have had anything you wanted in this legislation ... then you went into the candy shop and you left with a stick of gum," said U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.

While supporting some parts of the bill, McKinley said Democrats should have sought "bold bipartisan approaches," including attaching legislation to update the Section 48a tax credit for clean coal facilities to better enable the use of carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. The bill also "glaringly omits" research into CCS, improved turbine efficiency, small modular nuclear reactors and coal plants, and alternatives to lithium-ion batteries, McKinley said.

Christopher Guith, acting president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Global Energy Institute, complimented the bill's proposals to reauthorize the Diesel Emissions Reduction Program and Weatherization Assistance Program and increase funding for drinking water infrastructure. But like Walden, Guith said the legislation should do more to ease regulatory hurdles for new projects.

"Ignoring permitting reform would prolong an inadequate, inefficient and often counterproductive system of bureaucratic review," Guith said. He added that any infrastructure bill that excludes such measures "risks losing Chamber support."

Cloudy outlook

The hearing also touched on the difficulty in paying for a federal infrastructure package, an issue that has stymied work on such legislation in the past.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce backs increasing the federal fuel user fee by 5 cents per gallon annually for the next five years to fund surface transportation projects. Guith said the fee "hasn't been touched since the [1980s]" but admitted the extra revenue would not be enough to provide the $2 trillion that Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress have said they want to generate for infrastructure upgrades.

Adding further headwinds, Trump and Democratic leaders cut short a scheduled May 22 meeting on infrastructure funding. During a press briefing after the meeting, Trump said he could not move forward with an infrastructure package or plans to lower drug prices if investigations into his administration continue. The announcement came as lawmakers on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform seek financial records to investigate issues related to the president and his companies.