WASHINGTON – The last time Congress approved a major renewal of federal highway and other transportation programs, the votes were 359-65 in the House and 83-16 in the Senate. It was backed by nearly every Democrat and robust majorities of Republicans.
This year's $1 trillion infrastructure bill easily cleared the Senate 69-13 with GOP support, but crawled through the House last week by 228-206 with just 13 Republican votes. Those defectors were savaged afterward by former President Donald Trump, hard-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., called them “traitors” while tweeting their names and office telephone numbers, and one of the 13 says he received a death threat.
The votes, six years apart, and the harsh blowback against Republican mavericks illustrate a GOP in which conservative voices have grown louder and more militant, fanned by Trump's bellicose four years in office. Growing numbers of progressives have made Democrats more liberal too, with both shifts fueling a sharpening of partisanship in Washington.
“This madness has to stop," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., an 18-term moderate, who said his offices received dozens of threatening calls following his yes vote. That included one obscenity-laced rant that aides provided in which the caller repeatedly called Upton a “traitor” and expressed hope that the lawmaker, his family and aides would die.
Upton closed his two Michigan offices for a day and reopened them after increasing their security.
This year's bill, triple the size of the 2015 measure, is a keystone of President Joe Biden's push to create jobs and build out the nation's roads, water systems, broadband coverage and other projects. A compromise between Senate Democrats and Republicans, it will send money into every state and is the kind of bill that politicians have loved promoting back home for decades. Biden plans to sign it Monday.
Democrats say GOP opposition to the bill is indefensible on policy and political grounds.
“It’s a sad statement of how the other party has lost its way,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., who's leading the House Democratic political arm into a 2022 campaign in which Republicans have solid chances of capturing congressional control. ”If you want our country to fail so you can say things are bad and win power for yourself, you act like the House Republicans are."
But for many Republicans, infrastructure projects — once an issue the two parties would reflexively work together on for mutual and national benefit — now offer a complex political calculation.
"When it comes to policy these days, we’re basically divided into two tribes. And you stick with your tribe and you don’t try to help the other tribe,” said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster and strategist.
As president, Trump repeatedly promised his own massive infrastructure plan but never produced one, making the phrase “infrastructure week” a Washington synonym for “pipe dream.” But he opposes the current package, and his ability to rally his conservative supporters against those who cross him was a factor as GOP lawmakers decided how to vote.
Even so, hard-right cries for retaliation against the 13 pro-infrastructure Republicans, largely moderates from the Northeast and Midwest, have prompted their own pushback.
"This notion that we’re going to have people that are on the fringe, in terms of the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world and others, imposing some kind of a purity test on substance is lunacy," said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. Cheney has been at war with Trump and the party's far right ever since backing his impeachment early this year.
Cheney opposed the bill, saying it contained clean energy and other provisions that would hurt Wyoming. She said the 13 Republicans who backed it are “among some of our very best members” who did it “because it was the right thing for their districts.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., an unabashed partisan warrior, was among 19 Senate Republicans who voted for the bill in August. McConnell, who doesn't have to worry about being reelected until 2026, said this week he was “delighted" the measure was heading to Biden.
A day earlier, McConnell had already drawn Trump's wrath.
Trump issued a statement denigrating GOP senators who'd backed the bill for “thinking that helping the Democrats is such a wonderful thing to do.” Those Republicans “should be ashamed of themselves, in particular Mitch McConnell,” Trump wrote.
That was just the tip of the iceberg for the attacks.
In an interview, the leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus said GOP lawmakers should consider removing from their posts the 10 of the 13 defectors who are the senior Republican on committees and subcommittees. “I respect their right to vote their districts and their conscience. But that doesn’t mean that they should get the privilege of leading” House Republicans, said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz.
At a private Florida dinner Monday to bolster House GOP campaign prospects, Trump said he loves House Republicans but not the 13 who voted for the bill, according to an attendee who described Trump's remarks on condition of anonymity.
Earlier, House GOP leaders tweeted, and then deleted, that “Americans won't forget" a vote for the “socialist” infrastructure bill. “Time to name names and hold these fake republicans accountable," tweeted Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.
Before last week's vote, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said it would be “very difficult" for Republicans to promote backing the infrastructure bill during their campaigns because it is so closely linked to Democrats' accompanying $1.85 trillion social and climate measure, which the GOP has solidly opposed.
Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., who switched parties in 2019, said he supported the infrastructure bill because his state would receive over $20 billion “we desperately need.” Van Drew, who said he had heard “some cranky things” from some people, scoffed at the notion that the bill would “catapult the president” politically.
“If Marjorie Taylor Greene wants to be mean to me, that's fine," he said of the colleague who labeled him and 12 others traitors. "I love America very much. I would never ever do anything to hurt this country.”
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.