‘We have a deal’ — Biden, with Romney on hand, unveils infrastructure plan. What might Utah get?

Plan would include $579 billion in new money for roads, rails, internet and more — with no new taxes. Gov. Spencer Cox says state could put the money to good use.

(Evan Vucci | AP) President Joe Biden, with a bipartisan group of senators, including Utah's Mitt Romney, speaks Thursday June 24, 2021, outside the White House in Washington. Biden invited members of the group of 21 Republican and Democratic senators to discuss the infrastructure plan.

A breakthrough in negotiations has Washington on the verge of passing a big bipartisan package that would lead to a burst of construction — on roads, rails, airports, water systems, broadband internet and more. And it won’t lead to new taxes.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is a member of the small team that crafted this infrastructure legislation, and he helped pitch the plan in a meeting Thursday with President Joe Biden. Other Republicans involved in this compromise include, among others, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Rob Portman of Ohio.

“We had a really good meeting,” Biden said afterward. “We have a deal.”

The president said both sides moved during the negotiations, which reminded him of less-partisan times.

“They have my word. I’ll stick with what they proposed, and they’ve given me their word as well,” the president said standing before Romney and the other group of senators outside the White House.

“America works,” Romney told reporters, “the Senate works, and we can work together.”

What’s in the deal?

The bill includes $579 billion in new spending over the next five years, with $109 billion going to roads and bridges, $66 billion to passenger and freight rail and $49 billion to transit. The measure would steer $73 billion to power, including some for nuclear; $66 billion to expand broadband access; and $55 billion to water projects.

To pay for this, the group would shift some money that was in pandemic relief bills, go after fraud in the unemployment insurance system and hire more IRS agents to ensure corporations and the wealthy pay what they owe. There are smaller pots of money as well, such as selling some of the nation’s strategic petroleum reserves.

“We’re not raising any taxes. And we’re not adding to the deficit,” Romney told Utah reporters. He also said the program should not add to the current increase in inflation because the money wouldn’t be spent this year. These projects would take time to go through the permitting process.

What might Utah get?

The senators and the president agreed on a framework. Now they have to draft the legislation, and even then it won’t be totally clear how much money may come to Utah. But Romney said there are some known elements, even at this early stage.

National road funding is provided using a standard formula so Utah would receive its “fair share,” he said. The state would benefit from money to expand broadband access, since much of those funds would be focused on rural areas.

He anticipates that Utah would get some of the $25 billion for airports, with portions going to some of the state’s regional airports.

Romney expects this bill to help Rocky Mountain Power transition to renewable energy and that it would help modernize and expand the state’s water system.

“Particularly in the American West, where things are dry, and in our state, where things are particularly dry,” he said, “being able to have funding going into water projects, storage projects and distribution projects is a good thing for Utah.”

The Utah senator also argued that the measure addresses climate change in a number of ways, from providing money to help restore shorelines and fight wildfires, to funding nuclear and hydrogen projects. He noted improved roads would reduce the time people spend in gridlock, which would boost air quality.

“A huge portion of this bill is designed to make it easier on the American people to get around,” he said, “but also to reduce the amount of emissions that go into the atmosphere.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox lauded Romney’s efforts and how the money would enhance Utah, pointing specifically to funding for roads, broadband and water storage projects.

“Utah will need all of it and more to stay ahead of our explosive growth,” the Republican governor tweeted. “We’ll watch for details, but we’re encouraged to see the progress.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is not among the Republicans who have expressed support for this plan. He did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

A bumpy path looms

This bill would need the support of at least 60 senators to avoid a filibuster, and there are 50 Democrats. At this time, 11 Republicans have signed on to the framework. With senators leaving Washington for their traditional July Fourth break, the soonest this package would move forward is late July.

It could hit roadblocks along the way. More progressive Democrats may balk at the plan, or more conservative Republicans may try to chip away at the deal’s support.

Then there’s the larger spending bill that Biden and Democratic leaders are pursuing. This one would tackle a range of progressive priorities such as child care and climate change. Democrats have one shot at using a budget process called reconciliation that drops the threshold of support from 60 senators to 51.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was adamant Thursday that the bipartisan infrastructure bill wouldn’t come up for a House vote until the Senate passed the bigger reconciliation package, likely with only Democratic support.

“We will not take up a bill in the House,” she said, “until the Senate passes the bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill.”

Biden backed her up. He said in a news conference, “If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it. … I’m not just signing the bipartisan bill and forgetting the rest of it.”

This approach didn’t surprise Romney, but he said tying them together would likely delay passage and could derail the effort.

“Democratic leadership recognizes that this is the kind of infrastructure the American people appreciate and want to see get done,” he said. “And they’re going to want to tie it to stuff that people don’t care so much about and see if they can’t pull that across the finish line that has the potential of slowing things down or, frankly, making it hard for anything to get done.”

Romney remained bullish on the bipartisan blueprint, which he called “a great accomplishment.” He said it would benefit the nation and Biden, who at his inauguration spoke about his desire to work across the aisle. “And this shows, in fact, the president was able to work on a bipartisan basis.”

As for the group of Republican and Democratic senators who crafted the compromise, Romney said the group is just getting started.

“We said again today, ‘Hey, this was a great accomplishment. What’s next? What can we work on next?’”

Romney has an idea. He’s developed a bipartisan minimum wage bill with Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.