U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy said Tuesday he's supportive of a bipartisan proposal to raise the federal gas tax at the rate of inflation to help fund more than half-a-trillion dollars in new infrastructure spending, though the idea is facing headwinds from the White House.
Cassidy, a Republican, is part of a bipartisan group of 10 senators calling for $579 billion in additional federal spending on the nation's roads and bridges, a compromise well below the $1.7 trillion in new spending President Joe Biden initially outlined but higher than a GOP proposal offered last week.
Cassidy in a press conference Tuesday said the pared-down framework "could potentially address" the need for new bridges in Baton Rouge and Lake Charles and help fund several interstate expansions. He also said it would support coastal restoration and flood resiliency and kickstart new energy technologies like carbon sequestration.
To help pay for the proposal, lawmakers have suggested upping the federal gas tax, which hasn't changed since 1993, by indexing it to a measure of inflation. The White House last week rejected the idea, saying it violates Biden's campaign pledge not to raise taxes on those earning less than $400,000 a year.
Cassidy said if Biden doesn't like that revenue source, he needs to come up with an alternative. He said that front-of-mind for him in these negotiations are those Louisiana drivers who spend hours a week on their commute stuck in a traffic. He said that wasted time from shoddy infrastructure is already a "stiff tax."
"When a mom is waiting to pick up her child at school and she has to commute an extra half-an-hour to get there, there's a time-value for that mother that she could otherwise spend doing something productive," Cassidy said.
A bid to boost Louisiana's 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax, which hasn't budged since 1990, was shelved ahead of the recently wrapped-up legislative session amid opposition from lawmakers and a flood of cash from the federal government. The Legislature instead passed a measure that would increase state aid to roads and bridges by eventually redirecting $300 million of revenue annually from the motor vehicle sales tax away from the state general fund and toward infrastructure projects. It awaits Gov. John Bel Edwards' decision.
With opposition from Biden, the federal gas tax hike appears dead-on-arrival, but even if it was indexed to inflation, experts say it wouldn't come close to covering the increased spending. U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, estimated that indexing the tax would bring in an extra $2 billion a year. Her talks with Biden fell apart last week, paving the way for the bipartisan gang of lawmakers to take the reins.
Details on how the latest compromise will be funded remain sparse, but Cassidy said Tuesday lawmakers are looking to siphon off dollars previously allocated for coronavirus relief toward the proposal. With the nation coming out the pandemic "more quickly than originally envisioned," Cassidy said those funds could cover around one-fifth of the infrastructure package's price tag. Biden last week said he would be open to redirecting about $75 billion in aid passed during the Trump administration, but ruled out redirecting funds from the $1.9 trillion relief package passed earlier this year.
"The key thing is that we want it to be paid for," Cassidy said.
Democrats can approve an infrastructure package without meeting the typical 60-vote threshold in the Senate if they rely on a budgetary tool called reconciliation. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said the party is prepared to move forward under reconciliation if bipartisan talks once again falter.
To win passage under regular procedure, Cassidy and others need to pick-up support from at least five of their GOP colleagues in the Senate. He said his message to them is not to let "perfect be the enemy of good."