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Biden infrastructure plan faces roadblocks as GOP and Big Business protest

President Joe Biden on Thursday with Cabinet members

President Joe Biden on Thursday with Cabinet members Lloyd Austin, Gina Raimondo and Pete Buttigieg. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

A pothole named McConnell

President Joe Biden has talked about seeking bipartisan buy-in for his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, but it's already looking like Democrats will have to find a way to build it themselves and pave over emerging differences within their party.

"I’m going to fight them every step of the way," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who vowed Thursday that Republicans will oppose the plan. The RATE Coalition — a Washington advocacy organization representing major companies including AT&T, FedEx, Kimberly-Clark, Home Depot, Toyota and UPS — blasted Biden’s plan to raise corporate taxes.

Biden, at his first Cabinet meeting Thursday, tasked five of its members — including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo — with leading the effort to sell his plan to the American public. "Working with my team here at the White House, each Cabinet member will represent me in dealings with Congress, engage the public in selling the plan and help organize the details as we refine it and move forward," Biden said.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain left the door open to using the same tactic that put Biden's coronavirus relief and stimulus package over the top in the Senate — a budget reconciliation process that would only require holding together the Democrats' 50-vote majority, rather than attracting enough Republicans for a filibuster-proof 60 votes.

Democratic signoffs on Biden's plan were not a given. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), the top Democrat for tax policy in his chamber, said, "We will accept some of what he is proposing." But Neal wants to see financing from other measures besides taxes — such as bonds and expanded tax credits — in the legislation his panel will begin writing within four to six weeks.

On the party's left, there are complaints that Biden's plan should be more ambitious. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx/Queens) said she has "serious concerns that it’s not enough" and its price tag should "go way higher" — $10 trillion over 10 years, rather than $2 trillion over eight years. Some environmentalists said the plan falls short in its shift away from fossil fuels that cause climate change. But organized labor is mobilizing to get the package, with its promise of new construction and manufacturing jobs, passed.

Klain said he is willing to hear from a small coalition of moderate House Democrats, including Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who have said they will not support any package that does not repeal the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions enacted in 2017 under then-President Donald Trump. For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

Built it up or tear it down?

Biden's infrastructure blueprint acknowledges that roadbuilding in the past has created inequities — highways bored through neighborhoods that were predominantly home to people of color.

It singled out as an example the elevated Claiborne Expressway, which cut through New Orleans' Tremé section in 1969 and is the subject of a community campaign to tear it down and restore the avenue at street level, The Washington Post reported. Biden’s plan calls for a $20 billion fund to "reconnect" neighborhoods cut off by old transportation projects.

Already, Biden's Department of Transportation is invoking the Civil Rights Act to pause a highway project near Houston, an early test of the administration's willingness to wield federal power to address a long history of government-driven racial inequities, Politico writes.

That intervention follows complaints from local activists that Texas' proposed widening of Interstate 45 would displace an overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic community, including schools, places of worship and more than 1,000 homes and businesses.

Report: Gaetz probe eyes sex, drugs, cash

A Justice Department investigation into Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz is wider than whether the Florida Republican congressman had sex with an underage girl, The New York Times reported Thursday night.

Investigators believe Gaetz and an indicted Florida county politician, Joel Greenberg, were involved with multiple women who were recruited online for sex and received cash payments, the Times reported, citing people close to the inquiry as well as text messages and payment receipts it reviewed.

In encounters during 2019 and 2020, Gaetz and Greenberg instructed the women to meet at certain times and places, often at hotels around Florida, according to the Times report.

One of the women who had sex with both men also agreed to have sex with an unidentified associate of theirs in Florida Republican politics, the report said. Some of the men and women took ecstasy, an illegal hallucinogenic drug, before having sex, including Gaetz, the Times said it was told by two people familiar with the encounters.

Gaetz has denied paying for sex or having sex with a 17-year-old. A sex-trafficking investigation against Greenberg involves the same girl, the report said.

Earlier Thursday, commenting on the reports involving Gaetz and the teenager, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Gaetz should at a minimum be removed from the House Judiciary Committee if the claims are true.

Janison: Gaetz probe a MAGA peril

Lurid personal scandals involving congressional members of both parties come and go, but the storm surrounding Gaetz has special reach and implications for future leadership of the national GOP, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

If proved, the allegation under FBI review that Gaetz was involved in sex trafficking of a minor would make a mockery of the QAnon fiction that elite foes of the right wing run pedophilia rackets. So far, the "Q" crowd is sticking with Gaetz, who long ago made his MAGA bones with Trump and aided recent efforts to use procedural trickery to void Trump’s election defeat.

Trump’s convicted-but-pardoned Republican operative Roger Stone, another Floridian, has stepped forward, offering one of his trademark contrivances — that Gaetz has been targeted for his conservatism, however one may define it. As House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy looks to recoup a majority next year, Gaetz presents an awkward problem.

Biden studies up on student debt write-off

Biden has asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to examine the president's legal authority to cancel up to $50,000 in student college loan debt, Klain said Thursday.

Once Cardona reports back, Biden will "look at that legal authority, he’ll look at the policy issues around that, and then he’ll make a decision," Klain said in an interview with Politico. "He hasn’t made a decision on that, either way. In fact, he hasn’t yet gotten the memos that he needs to start to focus on that decision."

Klain's comments come as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other Democrats are pressuring Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt via executive action. Biden has voiced support for canceling up to $10,000.

Klain said Biden is hoping to see memos from Cardona and the Justice Department "in the next few weeks."

Optimism on economy rises

Views of the nation’s economy are the rosiest they’ve been since the coronavirus pandemic began more than a year ago, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs.

The survey found 46% of Americans overall now view the economy as good, up from the 37% who felt that way last month. Views of the economy tanked last April, when 29% said it was in good shape at the onset of the pandemic.

Democrats feel increasingly optimistic as Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief and stimulus package is distributed across the country. The poll found that 58% of Democrats now describe economic conditions as good, compared with 35% of Republicans.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's Bart Jones and David Reich-Hale. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • In an ESPN interview on the eve of MLB's Opening Day, Biden on Wednesday chided the Texas Rangers for its full-capacity policy while other teams are keeping crowds smaller for social distancing. Biden also supported calls to move the 2021 All-Star Game away from Atlanta in response to Georgia's newly passed voting restrictions law.
  • The infighting, backstabbing and chaos that exemplified Trump's White House is being replicated in his post-presidency, Politico reports. Competing factions are seeking to capitalize on their time with Trump to score new business and political clients, arousing Trump's usual ire about people making money off him. Trump recently brought in Florida-based GOP consultant Susie Wiles to bring order to fundraising and endorsements.
  • The United States may not need AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, even if it wins U.S. regulatory approval, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, told Reuters on Thursday. With three vaccines in the pipeline for the U.S., Fauci said he feels "we have enough vaccine to fulfill all of our needs without invoking AstraZeneca."
  • The State Department welcomed a European Union announcement that the six other participants in the Iran nuclear deal will meet this week to discuss a possible return of the United States to the 2015 accord. Iran already rejected an EU proposal for a meeting that included the United States, which demands that Tehran return to compliance with the deal that Trump tossed out.
  • Vice President Kamala Harris and her team are pushing back at attempts to make her the face of the Biden administration's response to the crisis at the border, CNN reported. They contend Biden's role for her centers on diplomatic efforts with Central American governments, and not dealing directly with the migrant surge.
  • Biden’s top national security and economic advisers plan to meet April 12 with semiconductor and auto companies to discuss the global shortage of microprocessors, Bloomberg News reported. The chips shortage is due to increased demand for microprocessors in the pandemic. Auto companies have been forced to idle production in plants around North America due to backlogs in supply chains.

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