Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she will establish a special House committee with subpoena power to oversee the government's spending of the more than $2.2 trillion approved to bolster the economy hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Pelosi, D-Calif., described her plans during a conference call with reporters, even as she said that the day's report of a staggering 6.6 million more people filing for unemployment benefits had increased the urgency for a federal response.
Pelosi and President Donald Trump have both suggested fresh legislation spending $2 trillion for new infrastructure projects, but even under the coronavirus crisis its prospects seemed unclear.
Pelosi said the new bipartisan panel would be headed by No. 3 House Democratic leader James Clyburn of South Carolina. It would seek to ensure there is waste, profiteering, price gouging or political favoritism as Washington pumps huge sums into the economy to pay unemployment, protect jobs and businesses and fortify the health care system.
""The committee will be empowered to examine all aspects of the federal response to the coronavirus, and to assure that the taxpayers' dollars are being wisely and efficiently spent to save lives, deliver relief and benefit our economy," she said.
For years, both parties have said they favor job-creating infrastructure spending but have been deadlocked over how to finance it. That's led to jokes about "infrastructure week" — shorthand for Trump plans to roll out proposals that never materialize.
This time, talk of a massive infrastructure effort comes as leaders of the mostly locked-down country desperately try averting the worst economic collapse since the Depression.
Yet even with both sides agreeing that infrastructure can be a reliable way of creating jobs and modernizing systems that themselves add muscle to the economy, it's unclear they can reach an election-year compromise.
"A lot of this is theater, staking out the high ground for the fight that's coming,'' said Liam Donovan, a lobbyist who's specialized in infrastructure work.
Pelosi and other top Democrats sketched out their own evolving infrastructure plan on Wednesday.
Its anchor would be a $760 billion package for roads, mass transit, water systems and high-speed internet networks, with more money coming for education, housing and community health centers. Democrats offered no apologies that their plan included clean energy and other environmental proposals.
"If you're going to rebuild it, it's rebuild it the right way," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Trump made his proposal by tweet on Tuesday, saying the plan should be "VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars." He elaborated later to reporters.
"We redo our roads, our highways, our bridges. We fix up our tunnels, which are, many of them, in bad shape," he said.
Congress' top Republicans have been guarded about the idea but have stopped short of ruling it out.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he'll oppose any Democratic effort to use a fresh economic recovery bill to advance environmental restrictions or other policy preferences. "We need to make certain that any further actions we take are directly related to this public health crisis." McConnell told told Fox News Radio's Guy Benson on Tuesday.
"This isn't a time to attempt to reshape American life through the eyes of one political party," said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Other Republicans are also tapping the brakes, saying any decision should await a fresh view of the economy when Congress returns to Washington. With lawmakers scattered around the country, that won't be until late April, at the earliest.
"If we find ourselves where the economy needs a stimulus, to me a highway infrastructure bill would be a key component of that," Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of his chamber's Energy and Public Works Committee, said in an interview.
Underscoring the range of support for infrastructure, groups praising the effor included the nonpartisan Environmental Working Group, five steel industry trade organizations and the National Association of Counties.
Other prominent players were less enthusiastic.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it favors increased infrastructure spending but prefers financing it by gradually raising federal fuel taxes. Those levies have been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel since 1993 and are not adjusted for inflation.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan anti-deficit group, rejected Trump's argument that today's near-zero interest rates made infrastructure spending appealing.
"Just because borrowing is cheap right now doesn't mean it's free," said Maya MacGuineas, the committee's president.
Trump promised a $1 trillion plan during his presidential run, paid for largely by private investments. Democrats opposed that approach.
Last spring, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., emerged from a White House meeting to say they'd tentatively agreed with Trump to work on a $2 trillion infrastructure package. That blew up days later during a White House meeting that disintegrated after Trump exploded over Congress' investigation into Russia's aid to his presidential campaign.
The Republican-led Senate and Democratic-controlled House each have plans that have stopped short of final approval.
Barrasso's Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved a bipartisan bill last summer mapping $287 billion for roads and bridges. In January, DeFazio's House panel outlined a broader $760 billion plan for roads, broadband and other projects that is now embodied in Pelosi's package.