House Transportation Committee Chair Peter DeFazio is on the verge of getting rolled. And he’s not going quietly.
After a 34-year congressional career devoted to transportation and environment issues, the Oregon Democrat could soon be forced to watch his life’s work shunted to the side if Senate negotiators secure a deal this week on a massive $1.2 trillion infrastructure package — largely without House input.
In a fiery tirade to fellow Democrats during a closed-door meeting Tuesday, DeFazio called the bill “crap.” He blasted the White House and Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who he referred to as the three “Republicans” crafting the Senate deal.
“I could give a damn about the White House. We’re an independent branch of government,” DeFazio said in a brief interview afterwards. “They cut this deal. I didn’t sign off on it.”
As the third most senior Democrat in the House and a founding member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, DeFazio is the rare battleground incumbent who could hardly be confused for a moderate.
He’s also one of the chamber’s more quirky members — known among colleagues for living on a houseboat, his love of craft beer and sporting a bolo tie to votes — who has a reputation for being outspoken and sharp-tongued when upset. But he also possesses a staffer-level knowledge of the issues he covers, earning him respect from both leadership and members in both parties.
“He’s the tiger of the House,” said former GOP Rep. Greg Walden, who served 20 years in the Oregon delegation with DeFazio before retiring last year.
“He’ll take on his own leadership, he’ll take on his own colleagues. And he’ll also be your biggest ally and friend,” Walden added. “I’ve been in both situations.”
But while DeFazio has been the most vocal against the emerging Senate deal, he’s not alone in the House as senators try to close out the massive bill. Democrats across the caucus have begun working through the stages of grief — anger, denial, eventual acceptance — as they brace for a vote in which they might need to simply rubber-stamp a sprawling Senate measure while their own infrastructure legislation gathers dust across the Capitol.
Tensions in the House have risen for weeks over the Senate’s turbulent attempts at a deal. Speculating what the Senate might do has become a topic in nearly every conversation, from caucus-wide meetings to weekly lunches of the Progressive Caucus.
The House passed DeFazio’s $715 billion infrastructure bill in early July, but it’s unclear what elements will be included in the Senate package. To add insult to injury, DeFazio’s bill is being used as the vehicle for the Senate deal — meaning the upper chamber plans to use his work to move forward on their compromise, then strip his language out of the legislation before sending it back to the House.
“I understand why he’s frustrated and I share that frustration,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), another long-serving member of the transportation panel. “Many of the best parts of this transportation bill were left on the cutting-room floor.”
One of DeFazio’s biggest complaints is that the Senate bill includes virtually none of his priorities on climate change at a time when the West Coast, including parts of his southwest Oregon district, is burning up. Privately, he has told his colleagues those provisions are also unlikely to make it into the Democratic-only spending bill, which will need to pass muster with the Senate’s budget rules.
But while Democrats say DeFazio is unlikely to walk away from the fight, few expect him to trample on a chance for a massive Biden win — giving him limited time to make his case.
“I’m glad that he’s sticking with it, because it’s important,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a fellow progressive from Oregon. “He knows probably more than anybody in Congress on the nuts and bolts.”
As a chair, DeFazio’s role in the talks is complicated: He needs to be seen as advocating for his bill but also can’t risk tanking the negotiations. And despite his strong stance against the Senate deal, DeFazio maintains good relations with Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with whom he has a respectful but frank relationship. Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and other top Democrats have tried to be respectful of DeFazio, publicly praising his bill and pushing the Senate to incorporate elements of it.
Like a tea kettle, his colleagues say they’ve learned to give him space to vent on whatever is bothering him before they return to the subject, usually encountering a much calmer DeFazio.
“The fact is we’re not in a take-it-or-leave-it psychology at this point in time,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday.
The White House has significantly stepped up its outreach to DeFazio since he scorched the talks in a private call last week. But he told POLITICO on Tuesday that White House negotiators still aren’t listening to him.
Few Democrats believe DeFazio will be able to secure what he truly wants — to go to conference with the Senate and meld the two bills together. White House officials have dismissed the idea of a conference, privately cautioning Democrats they don’t want to risk delaying the bill, or worse, blowing it up altogether.
Now, two camps have developed in the House Democratic caucus: those who have accepted they will likely need to swallow whatever is sent across the Capitol, and those who still think they can significantly shape the Senate product. Even progressives have mostly held their fire on the Senate talks because they see the cross-aisle back-and-forth as a means to an end. Without a bipartisan deal, they may not get their massive $3.5 trillion social spending plan that Democrats plan to pass without Republican support.
But for DeFazio, this infrastructure bill is the end. The Oregon Democrat has worked toward these policies his entire career, and it’s unclear if he’ll get another chance at a bill this big while he holds the panel’s gavel. Transportation bills only happen every handful of years, and Democrats are increasingly pessimistic about their odds of keeping the House next November.
DeFazio’s district dynamics are changing as well. Last November, DeFazio faced his most formidable challenger in years in Alek Skarlatos, the GOP hero who halted an extremist attack aboard a Paris-bound train in 2015.
DeFazio took the threat seriously and won by 6 points, but his district — which includes rural towns in timber country and up the Oregon coast — could be a lot tougher when he faces Skarlatos for a rematch in 2022. Oregon will gain a seat next year, scrambling the state’s congressional map and potentially putting DeFazio in greater political peril.
Privately, lawmakers and aides admit what no one wants to say out loud: DeFazio’s demands for a conference committee to mesh House and Senate priorities will likely not be met. And with a 50-50 Senate, House Democrats would probably need to just pass any deal the Senate strikes.
Yet even House Democrats who don’t think DeFazio will be victorious still support him. That’s particularly true for Democrats who hope DeFazio can convince party leaders to include their earmarks — cash for various district projects that were included in his bill — in the Senate’s legislation. Some lawmakers are already discussing other ways to secure those projects, such as including the money in a must-pass spending bill later this year.
“I wouldn’t characterize Peter DeFazio as angry,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday, responding to reporters. “Peter DeFazio is passionate about the great work that has been done by his committee and the House.”
Ally Mutnick contributed to this report.