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Republicans Are Split On The Infrastructure Bill, But It's Mostly A Messaging Fight

Michigan GOP Rep. Fred Upton is one of a small group of House Republicans publicly backing the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
T.J. Kirkpatrick
Getty Images
Michigan GOP Rep. Fred Upton is one of a small group of House Republicans publicly backing the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill on Thursday. Much has been made about a Democratic divide about whether to support the package, but House Republicans, who regularly join Democrats in big numbers to approve transportation bills, are also split.

The fight, though, is largely over messaging. Few House Republicans take issue with the argument that a large infusion of federal dollars is needed to fix the nation's crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., told NPR he's voting yes on the package, which was approved in a bipartisan vote last month by the Senate. He says it's modeled after a proposal from the bipartisan Problem Solvers' Caucus. He's part of that group.

"I have no qualms about supporting that. We need infrastructure, we don't change the Trump tax cuts, we don't raise taxes," Upton said.

Infrastructure is an issue voters want politicians to fix

He notes that voters in his state complain all the time about the roads, especially after the beating they take during the winter months. It was a central campaign issue for one gubernatorial candidate, in particular.

"Our governor, Gretchen Whitmer, won three years ago with one simple message: 'Fix the damn roads,' " Upton noted.

Unlike Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who voted for the infrastructure bill but didn't weigh in publicly on it, House Republican leaders are criticizing the measure and urging rank-and-file members to vote no.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has reversed her earlier strategy to link the bipartisan infrastructure bill to the broader $3.5 trillion spending package on Democratic priorities such as health care, education, climate and child care programs.

But House GOP leaders are still making the case the legislation is tied together and, for that reason, insist Republicans can't vote for one and then oppose the other.

When pressed by NPR how he can explain a vote against a bill that could mean millions of federal dollars in projects for his own district, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., pivoted to the larger measure Democrats are planning to pass without GOP support. McCarthy maintained, "You don't get millions of dollars for roads and broadband. What you get is $5 trillion of more inflation, you get a bigger socialist government, you get harm to our economy."

There's no final deal on that reconciliation package, and no vote is scheduled on it yet.

Upton disagrees with his leadership's strategy. "They're trying to say they're linked, but they are not linked. I'd like to think we'll vote on one but not the other," he said.

He wouldn't say how many fellow Republicans would ultimately back the bill, but believes the final number will be "double digits."

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told NPR that he opposes the bipartisan bill. But he says his concerns are partly rooted in the fact that it was crafted by a small group in the Senate — one that left out his home state senators and didn't allow input from the House.

"We basically surrendered to the Senate, and whatever they decided was OK," Cole said. "We should have done our own, gone to conference with them, in a more traditional deal."

A tough political vote

But Cole also said the move to link the two bills together makes it hard for any Republican, even those who support the substance of the bill, to vote yes.

"It's been linked to a reconciliation bill — that's an anathema to everybody in my district. So it just makes it tough. And again, I think that would be true for Republicans that were inclined to be supportive of this anyway," Cole said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was one of 19 Senate Republicans to join all Democrats to back the infrastructure bill last month. He told NPR, "I think the $1.2 trillion makes sense to me, it's more good than bad." Like McCarthy, he blamed Pelosi for linking the bills and predicted if Democrats didn't package the effort to tie them to the broader Biden agenda, more House Republicans would support the more targeted bill.

Upton said another political factor is the push by other GOP lawmakers to deny the president an accomplishment at a time when he's struggling in the polls.

"Some say just 'vote no' because it gives Biden a win," Upton said about that message from other Republicans, but he added, "the country needs a win."

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., accused leaders on both sides of the aisle of playing politics with the bipartisan bill.

"I think everybody needs to quit playing games. This is an OK bill. Let's get it done. The country needs it," Kinzinger said.

Republicans were united against the $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill the president signed in March. But some of them went back to their districts and took credit for the checks that went to families or other popular provisions.

Kinzinger predicted that could happen again with the infrastructure bill. He said if people want to tout its benefits, they need to vote for the bill.

"It's not perfect, but that's the business out here," he said. "That's how you get things done with two very different viewpoints."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.