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Unlikely alliances push for action on infrastructure, but will they last?

As reported by Kate Ackley and Jessica Wehrman for Roll Call

As President Joe Biden lays out a multitrillion-dollar plan Wednesday in Pittsburgh to remake the nation’s infrastructure, lobbying interests across sectors and spanning the ideological spectrum are forming tenuous alliances to prod Congress to act.

The debate is expected to dominate the K Street agenda, and as more details emerge, it’s likely those alliances will shift.

“It’s hard to find a client that doesn’t have a keen interest in infrastructure — it touches so much,” said Ivan Zapien, a partner in the government relations practice at Hogan Lovells.

Zapien, a former top Democratic Hill aide, said K Street interests have formed a “universal consensus” that policymakers need to move on an infrastructure package.

But he and others concede that the unity may not last.

“Everybody is trying to get on board as many people as possible to try to move this issue forward, fully knowing it’s going to be really rough once it gets to how to pay for it,” he said.

‘No clear path’

José Ceballos, a longtime chief lobbyist for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association who recently joined the lobby shop S-3 Group, said clients, taking their cues from Capitol Hill, are pursuing multiple paths, including a bipartisan regular-order measure as well as an all-Democratic one via the budget reconciliation process.

“What’s clear to everyone is there’s no clear path on how to enact this yet,” Ceballos said. “For our clients, we need to work to do everything we can to get our priorities into any base infrastructure bill, but we need to keep a careful eye on reconciliation.”

Some of the nation’s biggest business interests are leading the lobbying effort and have snagged a cross section of groups to join the cause.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spearheaded a coalition of hundreds of disparate interests — dubbed Build by the Fourth of July Campaign — that includes the Natural Resources Defense Council and labor unions.

“Our organizations won’t agree on every issue, but we are united in calling for enactment of comprehensive, bipartisan legislation before July 4, 2021,” says a letter the coalition sent to lawmakers last month. The letter went on to say that a club of unusual allies agreed the bill would need to update the nation’s “crumbling” infrastructure, stimulate the economy, address climate change and “address the digital divide.”

Ed Mortimer, who serves as the chamber’s vice president of transportation and infrastructure, said in a recent interview that the business lobby has worked with unions for years to push for an infrastructure package, but it decided to expand its pool of allies with the new administration and new Congress.

“We reached out to environmental and clean energy groups,” he said. “We have a lot of different opinions, but the coalition has been able to come together, saying, ‘Look, we have to do something about our infrastructure.’”

Planning ahead for photo ops

Mortimer says the July 4 timeline aims to give lawmakers something of a deadline, which frequently drives policy deals.

That timing, while ambitious, isn’t far off from the Sept. 30 expiration of the surface transportation reauthorization, and committees of jurisdiction have indicated plans to mark up bills later this spring.

It also speaks to possible political ramifications of the bill. If lawmakers are interested in election year ribbon cuttings or photo opportunities in the summer of 2022, they’d likely need to clear the bill by this fall at the latest to get funds to their local communities, said lobbyist Erik Olson, who chairs the critical infrastructure group at Venn Strategies.

Olson is working for a collection of clients, including the Rail Security Alliance, and is collaborating with labor groups.

“Everything we do, we try to do in a bipartisan fashion and have done so far,” said Olson, who once worked as the top aide for moderate Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.

Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, which signed on to the chamber letter, said groups had hoped President Donald Trump would follow through on his many promises to make infrastructure a top priority. After false starts made “infrastructure week” a Washington punchline, the dangers of climate change combined with the economic crisis caused by the pandemic “created a political space that didn’t exist before” for collaboration and people found areas of agreement, O’Mara said.

“Everyone realized we’re actually stronger together,” he added. “A lot of folks realized it was going to take that kind of alignment of stars on the outside to try to do it. … There’s a moment right now and I think folks all recognize that.”

But even as unlikely allies off Capitol Hill appear to have forged some common ground, bipartisanship in Congress may be harder to round up. Democrats have pushed for a comprehensive and transformative infrastructure package that fights climate change. But Republicans such as Missouri’s Sam Graves, the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, cautioned against a catchall bill, warning that a Green New Deal will go nowhere with his GOP colleagues.

GOP opposition to taxes

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear this week in Kentucky that he doesn’t support possible tax hikes to help pay for the bill.

“Let’s don’t turn it into a massive effort to raise taxes on businesses and individuals,” he said.

That disparate groups are coming together over the issue of infrastructure is not a new phenomenon, according to Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, a labor organization that includes 33 unions representing transportation workers.

Regan recalls having joint press conferences with the chamber a decade ago to call for infrastructure investment. Similarly, he worked with airlines on Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization in 2018.

“We recognize this as an example of where different interests come together,” Regan said.

But while the groups find it easy enough to unite on infrastructure, they’re not tasked with the tricky endeavor of finding a way to pay for it, Regan said. Lawmakers have been unable to move forward because of a reluctance to raise the federal gas tax, which pays for highways and transit, or to embrace an alternative funding stream.

“How do you pay for it?” Regan said. “That’s always been the question.”

Still, Regan said he’s more bullish about the bill’s prospects this year, in part because of a confluence of circumstances, including political willpower, presidential prioritization and pandemic recovery.

“We have a president who’s made this his first priority, not like third or fourth on his list of first-term priorities,” he said. “There’s more political willpower to do something here and to do something big.”