Why Utah’s House members aren’t buying Mitt Romney’s argument on the infrastructure bill

Some worry this measure will help pave the way for Democrats to push through an additional $3.5 trillion in spending.

(J. Scott Applewhite | The Associated Press) Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, center, and other Senate Republicans negotiating a $1 trillion infrastructure bill with Democrats, announce they have reached agreement on the major outstanding issues and are ready to vote to take up the bill, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. Utah's House members are wary of the measure.

Democrats in Congress describe it as two sets of tracks.

On one track is the $1.2 trillion bill created by a bipartisan group of senators. It would pay for roads, bridges, water pipes, new electrical lines, more broadband.

On the other is the $3.5 trillion spending measure Democrats plan to ram through on their own focused on climate change, child care and education.

Their goal is to ensure both bills make it down the tracks and arrive at the president’s desk.

Some Republicans, however, want to derail the whole effort.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is not among them.

He wants to see the bipartisan bill that he helped engineer become law, while he hopes the Democrat-only plan gets stopped. He’s urging his fellow Republicans to consider each piece of legislation on its own merits, but he’s having a hard time persuading his House colleagues from Utah.

His efforts have been complicated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has said she won’t bring the bipartisan bill up for a vote until the Senate passes the larger spending package.

Here’s how Romney recently made the case on the Senate floor as he promoted the bipartisan plan:

“Now I know that members of both parties have mischaracterized our efforts as somehow linked to ‘paving the way’ to the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion wish list. If you don’t think our Democrat friends are going to push for that monstrosity, with or without this bill, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell to you. They are going to push for that anyway. This is a separate piece of legislation. I love this one. I hate that one. These are two very different things.”

Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, isn’t convinced. The freshman lawmaker said it is “hard to separate the two” because Pelosi links them. Besides, he’s not even sold on the deal Romney negotiated, which commits $700 billion that Congress already anticipated spending, and then provides $550 billion in new money.

“The [bipartisan] infrastructure bill as it is now is still a very high price tag,” Moore told The Salt Lake Tribune, “more than I would feel comfortable supporting.”

He gets why some Republicans, like Romney, are backing it. They were able to put together an infrastructure measure without a tax increase. They were able to show that bipartisanship is possible and reduce calls to eliminate the filibuster (a rule requiring 60 votes to move most legislation forward).

But Moore said House Republicans are bent on thwarting the Democrats’ massive spending efforts.

“If there were a commitment from enough Democrats to vote against leadership’s $3 to $4 trillion package and tax increase and all that,” he said, “then you’d get more Republicans supportive of the current infrastructure package.”

Moore said he could stomach $400 billion in spending for such projects, which is the offer House Republicans put up recently.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, like Moore, argues Congress should be spending money on roads and bridges, but the bipartisan bill’s $1.2 trillion overall price tag is “a boatload of money.”

He expressed his concerns during a July 30 appearance on Fox Business, essentially saying the best course for the nation is if both bills go down in defeat.

He pointed to exactly what Romney wants him to avoid, Pelosi’s promise to keep the bipartisan measure on the shelf until Senate Democrats pass the bigger spending package.

Stewart hopes Senate Democrats will fail to coalesce around the $3.5 trillion plan. If they lose even one senator, they won’t have the votes to pass it.

“The good news is, as Nancy Pelosi and her political pride has said, she won’t bring up this compromise bill unless they pass the reconciliation bill,” he said. “And I hope that she sticks with that because then they’re both dead, and it may be the best option we have right now.”

Stewart said the level of spending suggested by the Democrats is stunning. “It’s as if we’ve entered a world where trillions of dollars just don’t matter anymore.”

Romney conceded the negotiated infrastructure measure isn’t what he would craft on his own. And he noted that it isn’t hard for members of his party to identify concerns, such as the level of spending on transit, which Romney acknowledged is too high.

“It’s very easy to point out the problems with this bill,” he said, “but it’s a lot better than what the Democrats would write by themselves.”

Romney argued that if the bipartisan bill fails, Democrats could heap what they want into their larger spending package by using rules that allow them to bypass the filibuster.

In this scenario, there would be only one track and the train on it would be loaded down even more.

“There are only two options,” Romney said. “There’s not an option for none of the above.”

If the Senate gets both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Democrats’ plan passed, the House is expected to take them up later this fall.