Battle heats up over proposed federal funding for Baltimore bridge

The battle over Congress’s role in repairing a landmark bridge in Baltimore is already heating up on Capitol Hill, just days after it collapsed.

President Biden vowed Tuesday that the federal government would cover the massive cost of rebuilding the Francis Scott Key Bridge, a major artery feeding the Port of Baltimore, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the country. The bridge was struck by a cargo ship, almost 1,000 feet long, that lost power as it was leaving Baltimore Harbor and drifted into a support pile in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Biden’s proposal is already winning praise from a number of Democrats, especially those in Maryland, who say the port’s value transcends the state, making the repairs an issue of national importance.

Only the federal government, they argue, has the resources to accomplish the task.

Yet the idea has sparked an immediate backlash from conservative spending hawks, who are already up in arms over Congress’s recent approval of a massive 2024 spending package and maintain that Washington simply can’t afford to pile more money onto the national debt.

Key Bridge, they argue, is a regional matter to be tackled by regional governments.

“The very thought of having the Federal Government pay for the Baltimore bridge is TOTALLY ABSURD!!” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) told The Hill by text message. “This exemplifies the old slogan ‘ROBBING PETER TO PAY PAUL!!’”

Republicans are not the only critics. Some liberals are also questioning Biden’s proposal, arguing that the blame for the tragedy lies, at least in part, with the owner of the cargo vessel, which should bear some portion of the repair costs.

“Let’s be clear about the tragedy in Baltimore. That bridge didn’t just collapse. There was no earthquake. The bridge was knocked down (apparently) by a private ship that lost control. Shouldn’t they be at least partly responsible for fixing it?” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist and Vice President Harris’s former communications director.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Wednesday on MSNBC that she expected insurance payments to cover part of the cost to rebuild the bridge.

The debate is sure to get only more spirited after Congress returns to Washington in mid-April following the long holiday break; party leaders will already be grappling with a number of radioactive issues, including an extension of the government’s domestic spying authority and military aid for Ukraine and Israel.

It remains unclear how much it will cost to repair the bridge — some estimates put the figure at a whopping $2 billion. But Biden on Tuesday, just hours after the incident, expressed confidence that he can win Congress’s backing.

“It’s my intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge, and I expect the Congress to support my effort,” he told reporters at the White House.

That promise is being hailed by Maryland lawmakers, who are vowing to make the funding a top priority in the upcoming session.

“I can’t predict when exactly the Congress will act, but we’ll get moving on it upon our return,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told reporters in the Capitol on Thursday.

Van Hollen, who has represented Maryland in Congress since 2003 — first in the House, now in the Senate — said parties involved are still performing an assessment to glean how much money will be needed to rebuild the massive bridge, but he assumes a “rough estimate” will be available “in the coming days.”

In the meantime, however, Van Hollen said the state will seek resources from a federal emergency fund, which will cover roughly 90 percent of the costs surrounding the bridge replacement effort. The remaining 10 percent, Van Hollen said, will be covered by state funds, and he and his Old Line State colleague, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), are working on legislation to cover that portion.

“Number one, we have to get the estimate for the full cost of the bridge. We’re gonna move very quickly in terms of submitting legislation,” Van Hollen said Thursday.

Such funding has historically been less controversial. When an I-35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, both chambers passed emergency funding and former President George W. Bush signed it into law within a week.

But the debate about how to handle the latest disaster is quickly heating up on cable news, where conservatives are already railing against the idea of throwing more federal dollars at the problem. Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.) called Biden’s plan “outrageous.”

“He doesn’t refer to it as the American taxpayer dollars on anything. You know, the first reaction — in fact, the only reaction — just tends to be to spend,” Meuser said Thursday in an interview with Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo. “We just can’t take the easy route all the time and just try to spend the taxpayers’ money.”

Given the certain resistance from the right, some Democrats are already voicing concerns that approving a federal fix will be a heavy lift in Congress, not least because Maryland is a relatively blue state, dominated by Democrats, which could sap the GOP appetite for the emergency funds.

With that in mind, some lawmakers are already floating the idea of attaching the bridge funding to a foreign aid package, including new military help for Ukraine, which Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is vowing to take up when Congress returns to Washington in mid-April after the long holiday recess.

“It could certainly be piled on, and if we’re going to move the national security supplemental, why not do that?” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said Wednesday by phone. “I don’t think that that has a lot of political sway. There’s not a lot of Republican senators from Maryland, so I would certainly not object.

“Sadly, it’s hard to get anything done. So if we need to get the bridge rebuilt, which we do, why not put it as part of the larger supplemental?”

As the debate evolves, some surprise voices have emerged in support of a federal fix.

Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), a spending hawk who hammered GOP leaders over 2024 funding, noted that the federal government should step in because an interstate highway — which is maintained by the U.S. Department of Transportation — was destroyed.

Burchett also argued that Washington has a vested interest in rebuilding the bridge given the importance of the port to national commerce and international trade. Any legal fights with the shipping company, he added, can take place afterward.

“My first inclination would be to — yes, that the federal government would pay for it and then they’d collect on the insurance,” he said. “Commerce would suffer ‘till we get our act together.”

Al Weaver contributed.

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