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Acquanetta Warren, mayor of Fontana, Calif. was part of a group of stakeholders who met with Trump in the White House to talk about passing an infrastructure plan. Then, she said, it was difficult to get bipartisan momentum.
Last month, Warren was among a group of mayors on a video call with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. She has since called and left messages with every U.S. senator, asking them to sign on to Biden’s infrastructure plan.
“They were up front with us. They said, ‘we want to work with all of you.’ They made it clear, they wanted input from everybody,” Warren said. “We need infrastructure. It’s worse than saying this town is falling apart, this nation has a disgraceful record in maintaining all of the money we put in bridges, freeways, overpasses and streets.”
From an antiquated lock and dam system in an Iowa river town, to the need for traffic relief and broadband expansion in Fulton County, Ga., local leaders across the country say they can not afford to keep up with basic infrastructure needs.
And while those officials who have spoken to the Biden White House said they want it to strike a deal with Republicans, a handful of them went even further. If their own party doesn’t agree on a deal, they said, Democrats should go it alone.
“My Republican colleagues need to realize that we are becoming a second-class infrastructure country that is at crisis level,” said John Giles, a Republican and mayor of Mesa, Ariz. “We’re gonna have bridges fail, we’re gonna have people die, we’re gonna have our economy suffer if we continue to ignore the infrastructure of our country.”
Giles went on to echo comments from about a dozen GOP officials, when he pointed to the demands on work and schooling from home during the Covid-19 pandemic as reason for why Biden also was right to think of infrastructure as more than just roads and bridges.
“I am in favor of the expanded definition of infrastructure. We all have lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic,” Giles said. “We all have the ‘aha’ moment of the digital divide.”
The White House’s current outreach effort is similar to the one it launched to pass a $1.9 trillion Covid relief package earlier this year. With infrastructure, however, there is even more opportunity to sell the overall proposal by highlighting local needs.
“We want to educate and engage and then we want to empower these folks to go out into their communities, whether it’s the elected officials or their constituents, and talk about how the president has real plans to deal with the power grid, to deal with housing, to deal with broadband and all of these things,” said Gabe Amo, deputy director in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, a clearinghouse for engaging with state and local officials.
Amo said he spoke last week with a Republican Utah mayor who mentioned that she frequently exchanges messages with GOP Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee. “She said, ‘should I bring this up?'” Amo said. “And I said ‘of course you should bring it up.’”
Yet, while there’s broad agreement in towns and cities on the need for more spending, there’s growing angst that the White House and Senate Republicans remain far from striking a deal on a massive infrastructure bill. GOP leaders have suggested that they’d support a bill in the $600 billion to $800 billion range that covers only so-called traditional infrastructure and that is financed with unused Covid relief funds and user-fees. The White House has recoiled at those pay-fors and is not on board with that small of a package.
“This is too big to ramrod through,” said Bob Gallagher, mayor of Bettendorf, Iowa. “There’s probably 80 percent of us that are somewhere in the middle and there’s 10 percent on the far right and 10 percent on the far left that scream the loudest and create the most havoc. But the rest of us would like to have our politicians sit down and hammer out something that makes sense.”
Several other mayors agreed that getting an infrastructure bill passed was too important not to happen. “Getting nothing done is not a great alternative,” said Republican Jeff Williams, the mayor of Arlington, Texas.
For some, that was true even if congressional Republicans didn’t sign on.
“When I’m trying to get something passed by the city council — where we have nine members — I work on five votes. I get six, seven or nine, that’s nice. I’m focused on five,” said James Brainard, the longtime mayor of Carmel, Indiana.
Brainard — who recalled touring his city with Buttigieg when the young mayor was just getting started in South Bend — says he’s in frequent touch with the administration, and spoke with Buttigieg before he was formally announced as the Transportation secretary.
“I’ve got that contact, but I try to leave him alone right now. He’s busy.”
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