On infrastructure bill, Romney sees benefits for Utah, Lee sees an orgy of spending

Will 2,000-page bill be a boon or break the bank? Either way, Senate votes are expected by week’s end.

(Doug Mills | The New York Times) Sens. Mitt Romney, right, and Mike Lee in Washington on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. The two Utah Republicans have very different views of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

Utah’s Republican senators delivered two very different speeches about an infrastructure bill that is expected to come up for a vote in just a few days.

Sen. Mitt Romney helped negotiate the $550 billion package and said his involvement made sure Utah interests were considered and addressed.

Sen. Mike Lee, though, is one of the bill’s chief critics, spending an hour on the Senate floor late Sunday detailing his opposition to a measure he sees as unnecessarily large.

Here’s a brief look at where they are coming from on the bill, on bipartisanship and on inflation.

What’s in the bill?

The overall price tag is $1.2 trillion — $550 billion is new government spending and the rest is the continuation of existing programs. This measure funnels money into roads, bridges, trains, pipes and broadband. It includes cash to combat wildfires, droughts and floods.

Utah would get $3 billion for roads and hundreds of millions of dollars for water projects and, like other states, could apply for money in the other areas.

A bipartisan group of Romney and nine other senators negotiated the bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and his GOP counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were among the senators who voted to bring the measure up for debate. The senators received the actual bill, more than 2,000 pages long, on Sunday evening, leading to a series of mostly celebratory speeches.

Romney’s position

“For decades, elected officials have talked about addressing our nation’s infrastructure,” Romney said Sunday. “This infrastructure bill turns that talk into reality, without raising taxes on hardworking Americans or adding to our debt.”

The proposal is largely paid for by using unspent money set aside for assistance during the pandemic and by counting the anticipated economic growth from these projects. It also includes smaller pots of money from selling off some of the nation’s oil reserves and radio spectrum.

Romney argues the bill is good for the country, even if it includes more money than he would like for transit and Amtrak. The nature of compromise means that each party had to give a little.

He also argued his participation meant issues important to Utah were considered.

“I want to note that if the Democrats were to have written the bill entirely on their own, Utah would probably have ended up with the short end of the stick,” he said. “Because of our involvement in this effort, some of our rural states like mine have been able to have a seat at the table.”

The measure includes money for Utah water projects and an effort to bring drinking water to more homes on the Navajo Nation.

Lee’s position

Lee expressed his respect, admiration and even his love for the senators who crafted the bill. He expressed his gratitude for their extensive work, and he was impressed they were able to pull this together in four months.

Still, he hates what they got.

“I couldn’t possibly vote for it because it simply spends too much money,” Lee said. “It spends money that we do not have, and it spends an enormous amount of money at a time when the American people are feeling the pinch of inflation.”

In his hourlong speech, Lee also repeatedly argued the motivation for the bill’s supporters is “to bring praise and adulation from the media and from each other.”

“When politicians vote to spend more money, not theirs, but everybody else’s, the way things work in our society today, in our mainstream media today, you get praise for that,” he said. “You pretty much always get praised for voting to spend more of the American people’s money as long as you can identify good people who will benefit from it.”

Lee doesn’t expect to receive praise for voting against this bill.

“Those who vote against it,” he said, “we’ll get attacked as heartless and insensitive and not caring about those people who will benefit from it.”

Lee maintains many of these projects could be handled by states and that instead of spending $550 billion more in these areas, Congress should be looking to scale back the $700 billion it already anticipated spending.

He considers this bill part of an “orgiastic convulsion of federal spending.”

Will this bill inflate inflation?

The U.S. has seen inflation in recent months. Some argue it is temporary, tied to shortages caused by the pandemic. Others, like Lee, see it as a more significant threat made worse by historic levels of government spending.

Romney, who has also expressed concern about inflation, argues this infrastructure bill shouldn’t worsen the rising prices.

If the proposal passes, it will spark a huge number of projects, but each one will take time to commence. There will be contracts to draft, government funding to be secured, environmental reviews and more before new roads are built or water pipes replaced. And the bill has a five-year timeline.

Lee’s not convinced. Yes, if all of the money were spent immediately, it would have a much bigger inflationary impact, but he said this level of spending — this is the biggest investment in infrastructure in the nation’s history — could still make prices soar.

The value of bipartisanship

Romney has said the value of this bill goes beyond the benefits of each project. This legislation shows Congress can act in a bipartisan manner to address a need.

“I’m proud of what we did together,” he said.

Lee doesn’t see the bipartisan nature of this bill as all that impressive.

“We can’t be expected to pass it just because some Democrats and some Republicans happen to agree with it. That’s actually not all that uncommon,” he said. “You don’t get to be almost $30 trillion in debt without a whole lot of bipartisanship.”

And Lee argued the other 90 senators haven’t been involved in those talks. He wants a few weeks to review the bill and talk to Utahns about it. He wants to be able to offer amendments — even though he won’t vote for the bill in the end.

He isn’t likely to get what he wants. Senate Democrats want to move fast

Next steps

Schumer, the Senate majority leader, hopes to have votes on potential amendments and the overall bill by week’s end. It then moves to the House, but that debate won’t likely take place until September, maybe October.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she won’t take it up until the Senate makes progress on a bigger $3.5 trillion spending package that covers climate change, education and child care.