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A red-blue divide made transit money contentious in the infrastructure bill

WASHINGTON — A battle over highways and public transportation nearly derailed the Senate infrastructure deal. And while negotiators reached a compromise to move the bipartisan package forward, the fight is just beginning.

Democrats say the $39 billion for transit in the Senate bill is not nearly enough, and are eying a separate multitrillion-dollar package as an opportunity to build more electric buses and rails, which they see as important in reducing America’s carbon footprint and combating climate change.

“We want to give people an alternative to the most heavily polluting thing in America and to get sustainable, renewable sources for transportation,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in an interview. “Exhibit A is transit offered in the city of Chicago — keeps cars off the streets and pollution out of the air.”

Durbin said Democrats can do more for public transit “in many respects, but not in every respect,” in the $3.5 trillion bill they expect to pass without Republican support. He noted that specific provisions of the Senate agreement cannot be renegotiated, which means Democrats will have to get creative.

“There’s a line that’s been drawn by the White House in negotiating that we have to respect,” he said.

The clash mirrors a growing divide between blue and red America. On one side are big cities that are represented by Democrats — including, increasingly, their suburbs — that are demanding green public transit. On the other side are vast swaths of rural America dominated by Republicans and where public transit barely exists and cars are the only way to get around.

“Transit is always going to be a bigger issue for Democrats,” said a GOP strategist who has worked on Capitol Hill and campaigns. “In most places in the U.S., where there are large numbers of people using mass transit, they are represented by Democrats.”

A political realignment

A recent political realignment has widened that divide. Many suburban areas that benefit from public transit into big cities have flipped from Republican to Democratic, giving the GOP less of an incentive to spend money on clean buses and trains.

“That shift accelerated in the Trump era,” said the GOP strategist, who requested anonymity to bluntly explain the party’s mentality on transit. The strategist added that while numerous Republican senators hail from states that include cities with public transit, those areas tend to vote for Democrats.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said that the Democrats’ offer was “way too rich” on transit and that Republicans weren’t willing to go that high.

“It’s still a very generous increase in funding for transit. It’s just not hugely disproportionate compared to roads and bridges,” Portman said, calling the final outcome a “true compromise.”

Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., said money for roads is more important to his state.

“I’m from Tennessee. Of course it is,” he said. “We’re a highway state.”

Public transit exists in the form of rail in cities like Nashville and Memphis, Hagerty said, but roads and the interstate highway system matter more to his state.

“There’s the trucking industry,” he said. “The logistics industry in Tennessee is a very big part of our state’s competitive advantage — and it’s highways.”

In an evenly divided Senate, Republicans who disproportionately represent sparse and rural states flexed their muscle to secure large sums of money for roads, while limiting the ambitions of Democrats who tend to represent more populated states that want to beef up their public transportation.

‘Bold climate provisions’

Past debates involving climate change have tended to make many voters fear for their electricity bills and potentially their jobs. Unlike in prior years, Democrats are hoping to minimize concerns by taking an approach that funds clean energy without taxing or regulating fossil fuels.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the chair of the House Transportation Committee, lit into the Senate framework after key details emerged last week.

“From what I know, this bill will not deal with climate change,” he said. “And that’s a travesty — at this point in time to lock in highway-centric failed policies of the last century, and ignore the largest single contributor to fossil-fuel pollution in the United States of America, which is transportation.”

DeFazio said he plans to advance his climate goals in the separate Democrats-only package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she won’t allow a vote on one bill without the other.

Climate activists fault the bipartisan group for leaving provisions on electric buses and electric vehicle charging stations on the cutting room floor.

“These negative developments make it all the more important we get bold climate provisions in the reconciliation bill that invests heavily in transit and electric vehicles,” said Jamal Raad, a former Senate Democratic aide who is now executive director of the group Evergreen Action.

Democrats wanted a split of 80 percent for highways and 20 percent for transit. In the end, they got 19 percent for transit, said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, calling it an improvement from recent years.

He said there were important victories tucked into the bill.

“The real number that people aren’t really focused on is intercity passenger rail,” Carper said in an interview. “The numbers there are off the charts — in investments, not just in the Northeast Corridor, but across Amtrak’s national plan.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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