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Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis Rejects Infrastructure Bill Over Lack Of Funds

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Shortly after the Senate voted to end debate on the bill, we spoke with Republican Senator Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. I started by asking where she came down on today's procedural vote.

CYNTHIA LUMMIS: Well, I voted no. It falls short of being fully funded. And I joined 10 other senators to suggest that we use unspent COVID monies to make up the difference. The centrist nature of this bill, where it is created by a bipartisan group, rejected that idea. So since it's not fully funded, I voted no.

MCCAMMON: You've objected, as you allude to, to the cost of some of these infrastructure proposals. You suggested using unspent COVID relief dollars toward that. But there is widespread consensus and a stack of engineering reports to back this up that the nation's essential infrastructure needs serious attention. Do you think there's enough there in terms of what you're proposing to meet those needs?

LUMMIS: I do. I sit on the Environment and Public Works Committee. Earlier this year, we put out legislation, unanimously and bipartisan, from our committee to fully fund roads and bridges, as well as sewer and water for the next five years. And in fact, our bills are incorporated into the underlying legislation under consideration now. The problem is it is further bulked up. It includes additional spending on noninfrastructure. And as so many bills become in the Senate, it has become a Christmas tree for other types of amendments that are not related to the hardcore infrastructure needs of the country.

MCCAMMON: This week, you've been at the center of one of the biggest debates related to this bill, a debate that's ongoing over including some federal regulation of the trillion dollar cryptocurrency industry in the bill. The original proposal, as I understand it, would have used taxes on cryptocurrency brokers as a way to help pay for this bill. You co-authored a bipartisan amendment which narrowly defined who would be considered a broker under these new rules. Now there's a competing bipartisan amendment that changes that definition even further.

This is some complicated stuff, but it's at the heart of the debate right now. Can you explain a little bit about what your amendment aimed to do?

LUMMIS: I'm working to try to accurately define broker for purposes of the Internal Revenue Code. The problem that I had with the definition of broker as it was presented to us, it is that it was overly broad. It could include peer-to-peer transfers of digital assets. It could include minors. It could include validators. This is such a new industry. My concern is that the U.S. Treasury proposed an amendment that would stifle the industry. And I'm concerned that Treasury has been overly broad in casting its net in a way that is going to push the industry off U.S. shore.

So that is my biggest concern. That's why I joined forces with the chairman of the Finance Committee, Ron Wyden, a Democrat, and Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, to rationalize the definition of broker going forward.

MCCAMMON: But, of course, as you know, that broader cryptocurrency provision was projected to raise $28 billion over a decade for things like infrastructure. That's a big source of funding. What's the alternative?

LUMMIS: Well, the alternative is to take COVID monies that have been allocated previously that are no longer needed for COVID and to repurpose them for this. And there are...

MCCAMMON: But are you talking about $28 billion there? That's a big number.

LUMMIS: Oh, yes, absolutely, way more than 28 billion. That is an easy hole to fill because the Senate passed a bill that became law, of course, in December. Then when the Biden administration came to be, the Senate passed another bill, 1.9 trillion in COVID relief. A lot of that money is still sloshing around unspent. It would be so easy to repurpose that money to pay for this bill without in any way impairing our ability to address COVID.

MCCAMMON: Of course, you're talking about that at a time when there's a new variant and concerns about more variants. I mean, one might argue - shouldn't COVID money be used for COVID?

LUMMIS: Well, Sarah, that would be the case if there were not so much more money than is necessary that had been previously allocated.

MCCAMMON: We've talked about your concerns about paying for this bill and also your sense that there is just too much in this infrastructure bill that you don't see as infrastructure. But what parts of it, at least in principle, do you support?

LUMMIS: In principle, I support the bricks-and-mortar components of this bill. It does fund roads, bridges, sewer, water, ports. And it does address the crumbling infrastructure needs of our nation. So I cannot compliment enough Senators Portman and Sinema and their colleagues who joined as a centrist bipartisan group to try to address infrastructure. It's important to America. I believe that they did it with goodwill. And I think that their efforts are going to bear fruit. I think this bill is going to pass.

MCCAMMON: So do you think it's going to get to a point where you can support it?

LUMMIS: Well, I keep trying to get to a point where I can support it, but unless we can repurpose COVID monies that are not going to be used or needed for COVID in a way that covers the cost of this bill, I'm probably still a no at the end of the day. But what's wonderful about the Senate that was not the case when I was in the House is that senators really are willing to try to keep working and negotiating and talking to get to the best product possible.

MCCAMMON: That's Cynthia Lummis, Republican senator from Wyoming. Senator Lummis, thank you for joining us.

LUMMIS: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF IBRAHIM MAALOUF'S "SURPRISES")

MCCAMMON: And stay with us because later on this hour, we will be hearing about how vaccine efforts have started to pick up in Alabama. That state currently has the lowest full vaccination rate in the country. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.