As President Joe Biden gears up to press Congress for a $3 trillion overhaul of the nation’s infrastructure, Republicans have started trying to narrow the package’s ambitions to just roads, bridges and ports.
On Monday, Biden will face some new pressure on the package, but from the left. Much of the Congressional Progressive Caucus is set to unveil the THRIVE Act, which would provide $10 trillion in federal infrastructure spending over the next decade, including massive investments in renewable energy, zero-emissions buildings and economic development in some of the worst-polluted parts of the country.
“The THRIVE Act is the agenda that establishes the pillars for economic renewal in our country,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, told HuffPost by phone. “This bill lays out a plan for massive job creation within the United States, so that a younger generation of Americans can think of these jobs as careers.”
It seems likely that Democrats will be able to get some level of infrastructure through both chambers; even Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the most conservative Democrat in the Senate and a powerful swing vote, has signaled willingness to pass an infrastructure bill without Republican support. And Biden appears to be warming to calls to reform or scrap the filibuster, the Senate procedure requiring a 60-vote majority to pass most legislation. But the THRIVE Act ― a version of which former Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), who now serves as Biden’s interior secretary, introduced last year ― offers a broad progressive consensus on what an ambitious package should include.
The bill is light on specifics but sets out a general framework for directing at least $1 trillion per year over the next decade to rapidly weaning the United States off fossil fuels and replacing corroded water systems, increasing benefits for home care workers, remediating toxic industrial sites, and propping up new, localized food producers, among other things. The bill lays out an expansive vision of how to slash the nation’s planet-heating emissions in half and balance the racial and regional gaps in wealth and health, issues that have animated the party’s base and inflected once-sleepy debates over roads and rail funding with the energy of a new-wave civil rights movement.
The package would create more than 15.5 million jobs per year and virtually end unemployment, according to an analysis by the University of Massachusetts’ Political Economy Research Institute. The Sierra Club-commissioned report examines what’s called the “Transform, Heal and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy” agenda, which shares the legislation’s acronym. The Green New Deal Network ― a newly formed coalition of green groups, environmental justice advocates and the powerful Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 1 million workers ― helped shape the bill.
“The people that were the glue that held this society together, that held American together for the last year, were the people one year ago we didn’t think were worth paying $15 an hour,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), the bill’s lead sponsor in the House, told HuffPost. “Coming out of COVID, people are seeing how much people are hurting, where the fractures are, and this is an opportunity we need to take advantage of.”
The bill earmarks 50% of spending for the neighborhoods, towns and regions that have borne the brunt of the fossil-fuel economy’s cruelties ― from the Black Americans who live near Louisiana’s petrochemical corridor and suffer rates of cancer 95% higher than the rest of the country to the struggling Appalachian coal communities now preyed on by natural gas goliaths.
On Friday evening, lawmakers were still working out the exact language, but the bill is expected to set up paid committees that would include representatives of those communities to oversee where the money goes. It also mandates that the federal government respect the sovereignty of Indigenous tribes.
The bill would establish a goal of 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2035, zero emissions from new buildings by 2025 and extending clean public transit options to the majority of Americans by 2030, and it would mandate Congress direct much of its spending toward those aims.
The White House’s infrastructure package is potentially less ambitious on the climate front, allotting just $400 billion for measures like green transit and research and development, according to The Washington Post. If that plan is carried out within just the next three to four years, it would essentially amount to about $1 trillion per year. If the administration instead doles it out over a decade, as a source familiar with the White House’s plans told HuffPost is likely, it would amount to roughly one-third of the spending and jobs progressives are demanding.
As Republicans stand a good chance of reclaiming one or both chambers of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections, progressives want a package that enshrines investments beyond Biden’s first term. As shown by the failed GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act while President Donald Trump was in office, it’s challenging to repeal popular legislation even with control of Congress and the White House.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and there may not be an opportunity to try again in two years,” said Kaniela Ing, the climate justice campaign director for the nonprofit People’s Action Network. “We have no choice but to plan ahead.”
Various pieces of climate legislation Democrats introduced over the past month offer details of what could make it into a final version of the THRIVE Act, should it gain steam. The bill itself calls for approving the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, the legislation that would mark the biggest expansion of union organizing rights in the post-war period.
It could also include the $500 billion package that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) unveiled this month for climate-friendly transit and the 100% clean energy standard that Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) introduced. And it could include Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s $454 billion electric car proposal and the $1.1 trillion plan for greener public schools that Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) endorsed this month.
“Coming out of COVID, people are seeing how much people are hurting, where the fractures are, and this is an opportunity we need to take advantage of.”
Schumer’s office did not return a request for comment on Friday.
At his first general press conference since taking office, Biden touched on various points captured in the THRIVE Act, calling for giving oil and gas workers jobs capping thousands of abandoned wells and for rebuilding public schools where corroding pipes make it so “the kids can’t drink the water out of the fountain.”
“Global warming’s already done significant damage,” Biden said. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
The THRIVE Act includes general language aimed at blocking funding from fossil fuel projects and bars money from going to geoengineering, the as-yet mostly theoretical efforts to artificially cool the planet, which federal scientists are starting to consider studying. Such provisions, while popular with activists who dub technology to capture carbon emissions or to suck CO₂ out of the atmosphere “false solutions,” could prove controversial with scientists and policy experts who say that both are needed.
Markey said the bill was meant to be “deliberately” general to avoid favoring any particular zero-carbon technologies. For example, it skirts the issue of whether money would go to propping up nuclear power plants, a divisive issue among Democrats that Markey similarly left out of the Green New Deal resolution he introduced in January 2019.
“Going forward, I think we should cast an arched eyebrow to easy and false solutions,” he said. “There’s still a lot of technological unknowns in those efforts, and we know renewables are effective and becoming increasingly cheaper.”
The proposal increases pressure on the White House to pack its infrastructure plans into one major piece of legislation rather than splitting priorities among smaller bills.
“The infrastructure package should also be done in one bill, not two,” Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the left-leaning campaign group Justice Democrats, said in a statement. “Republicans have made it clear that they have no intention of working with the President on an infrastructure package. Splitting the bill up in the hopes of getting 60 votes for the first bill will simply waste precious time.”