November 18, 2021

Colorado's Joe Neguse, John Hickenlooper play key roles bringing infrastructure bill to life

Late on the night of Nov. 5, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse walked alongside two fellow Democratic lawmakers as they made their way outside the U.S. Capitol, prepared to announce that a deal had finally been reached to allow for a vote on the infrastructure bill that had been idling for weeks in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Accompanying Neguse, the second-term lawmaker from Lafayette who arranged for the impromptu press conference, were U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a spokesman for a group of centrist Democrats.

The two represented competing factions of House Democrats who had been engaged in a stand-off over the Biden administration's signature legislative agenda, split between two massive bills with spending totaling more than $3 trillion.

Nearly three months after every Democrat and 19 Republicans in the Senate voted to approve the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill — tagged the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework and formally known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — the legislation was finally awaiting action in the House following a high-stakes game of chicken between the chamber's progressive and centrist Democrats.

Neguse helped to defuse the impasse, according to multiple sources, who recounted how the Colorado congressman served as a bridge between his party's feuding factions and nudged negotiators at crucial points to keep the talks from veering off course or collapsing. 

Neguse wasn’t the only Colorado lawmaker to play a crucial role bringing the infrastructure bill to fruition. U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, who campaigned on his ability to bring opposing sides together, helped write the bill over months of discussions with other moderate senators from both parties.  

“It’s clear Colorado’s Democratic lawmakers played an outsized role in crafting the bipartisan infrastructure bill and ultimately getting it across the finish line," U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat, told Colorado Politics in a statement.

Perlmutter and Neguse are members of the powerful House Rules Committee, which sets the terms for debating and voting on legislation before it reaches the House floor. The panel met multiple times in August to craft a rule involving the infrastructure bill aimed at satisfying all sides.

"I’m proud of the work we did to get the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed and look forward to seeing Colorado reap its many benefits, such as rebuilding and modernizing communities across the state, new jobs, and a better quality of life for more Coloradans," Perlmutter added.

The broker

But before the late-night Nov. 5 vote could take place, the House Democrats' opposing groups needed a broker.

The crucial agreement capped talks that had been underway since late October between House leadership and the two groups of Democrats, who had dug in their heels and threatened to derail the Biden administration’s domestic policy agenda if their demands weren’t met.

Essentially, members of the roughly 100-member progressive group were withholding support for the infrastructure bill until they had a firm assurance that the smaller group of moderate Democrats would support a vote on the budget reconciliation package, which includes social spending and measures to combat climate change.

Throughout, Jayapal said her caucus was worried that the social policy legislation would get sacrificed to pressure from moderate Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who had already cut the initial $3.5 trillion proposal's price tag nearly in half. (Under the Senate's budget reconciliation rules, Democrats only need a simple majority to pass the Build Back Better Act in the Senate, but since it hasn't attracted any GOP support, sponsors can't afford to lose support from any of the chamber's 50 Democrats, giving Manchin and Sinema veto power over the package.)

What had been lacking in the negotiations — and what Neguse brought to the table — was trust, said numerous Democrats who saw the legislative version of shuttle diplomacy up close.

Neguse, with feet planted in House leadership as a co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, where he serves as a vice chair, played a pivotal role bringing the sides together.

At several key points as negotiations honed in on the agreement that teed up the Nov. 5 House vote on the infrastructure bill, Neguse was either in the room or shuttling between leaders of the factions, helping both sides “get to a yes,” as prominent progressive U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna of California put it after the House passed the bill.

Soon after the vote, Khanna tweeted that Biden and his chief of staff, Ron Klain, “should know that no one did more than @JoeNeguse in the progressive caucus to help us get to a yes. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the deal.”

Klain retweeted Khanna’s accolades, adding the “100” emjoj, signifying that he agreed 100%.

According to multiple accounts, Neguse helped nudge talks back on track at numerous points when negotiations stalled and the groups made clear that they didn't trust the process or each other, starting on Oct. 28, the day House Democratic leadership first made it clear they intended to bring the infrastructure bill to a vote.

The day began with Biden meeting with House Democrats to urge that progressives get on board with both bills before he departed for a diplomatic trip to Europe. Jayapal, however, insisted that progressives would only vote on the two bills together — and for that to happen, they needed to see the text of the reconciliation bill to ensure their priorities had survived before they would commit to providing the necessary votes to pass the infrastructure bill.

At the suggestion of Democratic U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Neguse and Schatz moderated a meeting between Jayapal and Sinema, with Neguse serving as "a bridge" between progressives and the moderate senator, the Associated Press reported. 

“I have new optimism,” Schatz tweeted after the meeting, prompting Neguse to respond: "Same."

After the meeting, Khanna told CNN that the progressive group was “pretty assured that this deal goes forward,” adding, “It’s the first time I felt like that — and I really trust Joe and Pramila.”

In the coming days, Neguse was on hand at subsequent meetings that brought the sides closer together. Khanna and Neguse were among House Democrats who met with Manchin on the Senate floor on Nov. 2, according to Huffington Post reporter Igor Bobic, and they were also among about a dozen of the party’s left-leaning House members who met two days later with Biden at the White House, Politico’s Sarah Ferris reported.

With the progressive and centrist House Democrats still balking ahead of a planned vote and as the clock ticked toward midnight on Nov. 5, Neguse was the only member of the Progressive Caucus huddled with a small group of centrist Democrats who helped Gottheimer draft a statement. What resulted was intended to persuade the progressives that the moderates would stand by their commitment to vote on the budget reconciliation bill as soon as possible, once the Congressional Budget Office had scored the legislation, the New York Times reported.

As Biden joined the discussion by phone, Gottheimer finalized the language, agreeing to a deal proposed earlier that day by leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus — a group that counts Neguse as a member — to vote on the infrastructure bill and approve a rule to hold a vote on the budget reconciliation bill after the CBO completed its report. Four of Gottheimer's compatriots signed the statement, saying they would vote for the Build Back Better bill "in its current form other than technical changes" by the end of the week of Nov. 15: U.S. Reps. Ed Case of Hawaii, Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Kathleen Rice of New York and Kurt Schrader of Oregon.

And that's what happened.

NBC News reporters Leigh Ann Caldwell and Haley Talbot said that after the plan proposed by the Congressional Black Caucus began to gain traction, Neguse hunkered down.

"Neguse called progressives, members of leadership and Gottheimer. They ran from room to room where different groups of members were huddled," they wrote

Breaking bread

Soon after he was sworn into office in January, Hickenlooper, Colorado's junior senator and a former two-term governor, was asked to join what eventually grew to a group of 22 senators — split evenly between Republicans and Democrats — who negotiated the bill before its passage this summer in the Senate.

Hickenlooper told Colorado Politics his role helping draft the bill began just days after he was elected last November, when Manchin invited him and incoming U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona over to talk infrastructure and the legislative process over pizza and beer.

"Joe Manchin was really insistent that we needed to do this bill as a bipartisan basis," Hickenlooper said, noting he also worked closely with Republican senators in the working group, including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah.

"We'd just talk about infrastructure and talk about other bills and places where people could work together. For him to take a couple of freshmen and say their opinion matters, too, and we want to make sure that they're part of this process, what a gift to Mark Kelly and to me to be part of this and get to put some of what I talked about in the campaign (into practice)."

Hickenlooper, who helped launch Colorado's brewpub industry before he entered politics, took heat from pundits when he kicked off his short-lived presidential campaign in 2019 boasting that he would bring his brand of bartender diplomacy to Washington by encouraging adversaries to hash out tough issues the way he had as governor and mayor of Denver. He said this week that the infrastructure bill's very existence supports his approach to politics.

Breaking bread helped, Hickenlooper said. 

"We had a ton of meals, we had at least one lunch a month, sometimes two to three lunches a month where we'd have all 20 people in one room talking about the bill and haggling over the smaller details," he said, adding with a grin, "But, you know, with the smaller details, you're still talking $10 or $20 million. It's worth haggling."

Hickenlooper said he learned plenty about the process and didn't want to overstate his role — noting that his colleagues have much more experience in legislative matters — but acknowledged that he had a hand in several components of the final legislation, including its incorporation of a bill he sponsored to encourage local electrical utilities to offer better prices to consumers when they charge their vehicles.

"We worked so much with broadband (in Colorado) that I was on that little group of people," he said. "We really went into detail on some of these things. I was very involved with some of the issues around airports. It's not just (Denver International Airport). We have airports all over the state that need runways or need basic infrastructure, and they're going to get it."

Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, added that he's particularly proud that the bill includes "real money" for capping inactive and abandoned oil and natural gas wells, both as a safety measure and to curb methane emissions, which he boasted builds on a program he pioneered when he was governor.

"It was our work in Colorado that alerted the world to it," he said, noting that an agreement he brokered between the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists to reduce methane emissions has become the model for regulations adopted worldwide.

"Methane in the first couple of years is 80 to 90 times more polluting, more harmful to the climate, trapping more heat than CO2," he said. "I was very proud that, as people tried to cut that out a couple of different times, and I was a loud voice  we expanded it to look at coal mines and abandoned mines that are both water pollution and air pollution."

In many ways, the infrastructure bill was a triumph not only for the Biden administration, but also for Colorado's Democratic lawmakers.

The statement presented to the press by Gottheimer and Jayapal just before the vote had been hammered out over hours of painstaking revisions with hands-on help from Neguse. It summarized the centrist lawmakers’ promise that they would vote on the larger, $1.85 trillion budget reconciliation package — the Build Back Better Act, nicknamed after President Joe Biden's campaign slogan, sometimes also dubbed the “soft infrastructure” measure — later in November after fiscal estimates had been calculated. That paved the way for most of the progressive lawmakers, led by Jayapal, to support the infrastructure bill that night.

Within hours, the narrowly divided House passed the infrastructure bill, 228-206, with 13 Republicans voting in favor and six of the most outspoken, left-leaning Democrats  led by U.S. Rep, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York  voting against it. Colorado's House delegation split on party lines, with the four Democrats voting "yes" and the three Republicans voting "no."

Biden signed the bill 10 days later, touting it as the largest investment in roads, bridges, railways, ports, broadband, utilities and water systems in decades.

Colorado was well-represented at the Nov. 15 signing ceremony on the White House lawn among a bipartisan — albeit heavily Democratic — invited crowd of lawmakers, governors, mayors and business and union leaders.

In addition to Neguse and Hickenlooper, attendees included U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter and Jason Crow, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

"Too often in Washington, the reason we don’t get things done is because we insist on getting everything we want,” Biden said before signing the bill. “With this law, we focused on getting things done.” He added that he ran for president on a message of delivering results “through compromise and consensus.”

Republicans: 'Garbage'

While Democrats applauded the infrastructure bill and touted the billions of dollars worth of improvements on deck for every state, Republican members of Colorado's congressional delegation gave the legislation an emphatic thumbs down.

U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs called the package a "bloated" attempt to expand the role of the federal government, while his colleague from Silt, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, aimed her ire at fellow Republicans who supported the bill and vowed to hold them to account. U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a former chairman of the Colorado GOP, warned that a vote for the infrastructure bill amounted to a vote for the budget reconciliation package, which he denounced as "socialist."

Lamborn said in a news release that he agrees the government needs to spend money on "traditional infrastructure," listing roads, bridges, the electric grid and broadband, but claimed the bill "focuses primarily on pushing the Green New Deal," even as Democrats, he alleged, weren't addressing "the southern border crisis, the growing supply chain shortages, or the labor crisis."

Added Lamborn: "After a month full of inactivity, it is apparent, the Democratic caucus is truly in disarray."

Boebert attacked "RINOs" — a derisive term for "Republicans in name only" — for helping Democrats pass what she termed a "garbage" bill in a tweet.

"Time to name names and hold these fake Republicans accountable," she noted before retweeting a message from a fellow Republican lawmaker that read, "Republicans who voted for the Democrats' socialist spending bill are the very reason why Americans don't trust Congress."

Ahead of the infrastructure bill's passage in the House on Nov. 5, Buck, in a tweet, accused House Republicans who voted for it of "helping Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden ram through their massive socialist reconciliation package. There is no justification to vote yes, Republicans should reject this!"

By:  Ernest Luning
Source: Colorado Politics