CHARLESTON — U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito pointed to a Charleston transportation project as a sign of things to come when bipartisan infrastructure dollars begin to flow to West Virginia.
Yet, both remain skeptical of President Joe Biden’s nearly $2 trillion package of social spending programs passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week.
Manchin and Capito were on hand Monday morning for the announcement at Haddad Riverfront Park in Charleston. The U.S. Department of Transportation approved a grant application submitted by the City of Charleston for the Capitol Connector project. The West Virginia Department of Transportation also is a partner in the project.
The $1.75 million Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure for Sustainability and Equity (R.A.I.S.E.) Grant will help pave the way for improvements to Kanawha Boulevard East from downtown Charleston to Greenbrier Street and the city’s 35th Street and Southside bridges, including beautification, public safety projects, and biking and walking lanes.
“This close to four-mile stretch…is going to be monumental for the city of Charleston. This is a huge project,” said Charleston Mayor and Wheeling native Amy Shuler Goodwin. “There is no question we would not be here on this chilly, absolutely freezing day…without the support and help of Sen. Capito and Sen. Joe Manchin. It is without question they are the two most influential senators in our United States Congress right now.”
The R.A.I.S.E. Grant is a competitive grant program, where hundreds of cities are competing for grant awards. The Capitol Connector was the only project in West Virginia to receive a R.A.I.S.E. Grant. While the R.A.I.S.E. Grant came prior to the passage Nov. 6 of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF), Charleston will be able to secure funding through the BIF for construction of the project.
BIF includes $550 billion in funding for traditional infrastructure, including transportation, water and wastewater, clean energy and broadband expansion projects. The bill is paid for with unused COVID-19 relief dollars and additional fees and revenue sources. West Virginia is expected to receive as much as $6 billion from BIF over the next five years for highway and bridge projects, water and wastewater infrastructure, flood resiliency, broadband expansion and abandoned mine land cleanup.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was the result of early negotiations between Capito and the White House in the spring, as well as negotiations with a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators in the summer, including Manchin. Both Capito and Manchin said Monday’s Capitol Connector announcement is just a small taste of what could come to West Virginia for infrastructure improvements.
“The BIF brings a lot of dollars,” Capito said. “This is a vision and engineering design for something that has been looked at for years and years and now we’ll be able to do it. I think it transforms and modernizes our cities and makes them more user-friendly and safer and all of those things. I think this is a good indication of what will come.”
“With the BIF money, we’re talking about water and sewer, we’re talking about rail service and upgrading our airports and things of that sort,” Manchin said. “We haven’t done that for over 30 years. Deferred maintenance has been let go for far too long. This infrastructure bill that we just passed I think is one of the most important pieces of legislation I’ve worked on, and (Capito) and I worked together on this.”
While BIF had bipartisan support in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the $1.85 trillion Build Back Better bill is proving more divisive. The House passed the bill Friday along party lines with no Republican support. All three of West Virginia’s Republican House members, 1st District Rep. David McKinley, 2nd District Rep. Alex Mooney and 3rd District Rep. Carol Miller, voted against it.
The Build Back Better Act includes funding for multiple social spending programs, including universal pre-Kindergarten; paid family leave; subsidized elder care and child care; affordable housing; expanded healthcare; prescription drug price negotiating through Medicare; and clean energy and climate change mitigation, including incentives to move away from coal-fired electric power and fees for methane emissions.
Capito, a frequent critic of the Build Back Better plan, said she doesn’t see any way that Senate Republicans can support the bill, even if the price tag is trimmed down or some of its more divisive programs are removed. Capito and Senate Republicans are also critical of Build Back Better’s corporate tax increases to pay for the bill.
“I cannot support it,” Capito said. “It is a wish list of spending and reckless taxes. We’re going to work hard to defeat this.”
The Build Back Better bill will have to go through the budget reconciliation process in the Senate, which gets around the 60-vote filibuster threshold needed for normal bills. But that means Senate Democrats will need all 50 members on board. All eyes are on Manchin, one of the few moderates in the Senate Democratic caucus, who has been critical about the bill’s price tag, its effect on inflation and the deficit, and various provisions in the bill.
“I’m looking at the whole package,” Manchin said. “I want to make sure we don’t add any more debt to the inflated economy we already have with inflation going up. I go to the pump. I’m as mad as everyone else paying $1.25 more than I paid last year at this time. When I go to the grocery store, I’m mad about paying the extra, so I know what’s going on. I want to be very careful of that.”
Manchin said his staff is going through the more than 2,000-page bill and reviewing all of the programs within. Manchin is keeping an open mind, but he expects to be involved with negotiations with his Senate Democratic colleagues and President Biden over the bill’s contents.
“I’m not going to put programs in that we can’t maintain or sustain and basically put a hardship on future generations. I’m very concerned about that.” Manchin said. “I think the president and I will have some good conversations about all of that.”
Capito said the bill also is likely to change during the budget reconciliation process, which requires the Senate Parliamentarian to sign off on the bill’s provisions. That process is called the Byrd Rule, named for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. Those changes could make the bill less acceptable to Democrats in the House.
“Now that it is over in the Senate, it’s going to be looked at more specifically by the parliamentarian, so it’s not going to be the same bill that came over from the House,” Capito said. “It had a narrow margin there…and I think it has a tortured path and I hope it ends in a big stop sign.”