Congress Infrastructure

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, and other Senate Republicans negotiated a $1 trillion infrastructure bill with Democrats.

Though stymied earlier this week by partisan bickering over technicalities, Sen. Bill Cassidy said Wednesday a measure that would provide disaster relief should clear the U.S. Senate late Wednesday night or Thursday.

“We are speaking about something which has occurred but which has been worked out,” said Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, during a town hall video conference moderated by The Advocate | The Times-Picayune.

On Monday, Republicans and Democrats forwarded competing legislation that would allow the federal government to continue operating until December and included funding for hurricane recovery. The key difference between the two measures was inclusion of a provision to increase the amount of money the federal government can borrow to pay its bills.

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Sen. Bill Cassidy joins Editor Peter Kovacs for a virtual Town Hall, where he will be answering questions submitted by our readers. The event is sponsored by AARP.

Democrats sought to increase the debt limit to not only cover the trillions of dollars that Donald Trump added to the budget while president, but also enough to cover an additional $3.5 trillion that would become necessary to pay for proposed spending, which has not yet been approved, on social safety net programs.

Republicans opposed the proposed spending and said no to a continuing resolution that included an increase in the debt cap.

Without increasing the debt limit, Democratic senators wouldn’t go along with a continuing resolution to keep the federal government operating after 12:01 a.m. Friday.

“It’s going to come back up tonight or tomorrow without the debt ceiling,” Cassidy said Wednesday. “It will pass. We will have the aid for Laura, Delta and Zeta,” the storms that came ashore last year.

Aid for Hurricane Ida, which hit Louisiana a month ago, is in a separate bill and that will pass too, Cassidy said.

Cassidy also has high hopes for another bill that would spend $1 trillion improving roads, bridges, and other infrastructure along with some funding to expand broadband internet and help harden the electrical grid.

A Senate amendment to a House-passed bill, which basically is a bipartisan agreement that Cassidy had helped negotiate, was supposed to be voted upon Monday in the U.S. House.

But House Republican leadership is raising issues that critics say basically boil down to their not wanting to give President Joe Biden a win. Left-leaning House Democrats, who say they’re afraid that approving the infrastructure bill will end any negotiations with the Biden administration on adding to the proposed $3.5 trillion social safety net budget, also have threatened to vote against the measure.

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U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has set a vote on the infrastructure bill on Thursday.

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill includes $65 billion to expand broadband internet to areas without it.

Cassidy said local, state, and federal agencies primarily operate off the internet to communicate before and during a storm as well as to coordinate rescue and recovery operations. Internet also is essential for commerce, he added.

Cassidy recalled visiting Port Fourchon, where Ida came ashore with 150 mile per hour sustained winds. A commission employee voiced concern that the lack of internet would delay paying their Federal Insurance Contributions Act payroll tax, which funds Social Security and Medicare.

“This is such a wife thing,” Cassidy said. “All this disaster and everything else, but she was focused on the fact that they had to pay their FICA and she couldn’t do her FICA because by this time the utility companies had cut the fiber optics and they no longer had internet. You can’t do commerce without hi speed internet.”

Several GOP members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation say one reason they’re not supporting the legislation is because the state will receive way too little of the money.

Cassidy disagrees, pointing out that two of the very few earmarks in the bill are directed to Louisiana: a ten-fold increase for the parishes bordering Lake Pontchartrain and millions to help clear up problems in the Calcasieu Ship Channel caused by last year’s storms.

The infrastructure bill also includes money for coastal restoration, flood mitigation and to improve the towers, poles and other equipment that keep the lights on during and after a storm.

While Louisiana isn’t specifically mentioned in the legislation, the definitions identifying states that would qualify for the money prioritize areas subject to natural disasters.

“It doesn’t spell out Louisiana but it effectively says Louisiana,” Cassidy said. “I’m pretty wound up about this bill because it would be so tremendous for Louisiana.”

Cassidy recalled speaking with Biden during the president’s recent trip to Louisiana.

“I said, ‘Mr. President this infrastructure bill would harden the grid. It would help us in Louisiana.’ He goes, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ So, to say somehow the president is going to do a dirty deed to Louisiana, it’s on his mind that this bill could help Louisiana.”

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.