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Tensions rising in Congress over how to fund rebuilding of Baltimore’s collapsed bridge

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Two days after Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed, signs of friction — or outright reluctance — are emerging among some lawmakers about using new federal dollars to rebuild it, even as President Joe Biden implores Congress to fully fund the recovery.

“It was kind of outrageous immediately for Biden to express in this tragedy the idea that he’s going to use federal funds to pay for the entirety,” Rep. Dan Meuser told Fox Business on Thursday. “This is a crisis situation, but it needs a plan, not a knee-jerk spend reaction.”

The Pennsylvania Republican suggested that instead of spending new money for reconstruction of the bridge, lawmakers pull cash from the “ridiculous” electric vehicle deployment program that Congress voted to create earlier in Biden’s administration.

Those comments didn’t sit well with Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume, in whose district the bridge is located. He called Meuser’s position “short-sighted,” noting that the Pennsylvania Republican co-chairs the Congressional Coal Caucus, which advocates for one of the main exports of the Port of Baltimore.

“This is not a Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore issue. It affects the supply chains nationwide and will have an impact economically, nationwide, unless that bridge is rebuilt,” Mfume told POLITICO. “After hearing Dan Meuser’s comments today, I’m a little taken aback and I don’t know how to respond to that except that he may not realize — or may not have realized at the time — that his issue — coal — in particular is going to be dramatically affected by this.”

He added: “I just don’t know how in Pennsylvania coal country, how anybody could be lauding the fact that we should slow down or not get totally involved as the federal government in rebuilding the bridge and reopening the harbor.”

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), formerly the No. 2 House Democrat, also pushed back on Meuser in a statement to POLITICO. He said relief for Baltimore “isn’t an act of charity” but “an investment that is absolutely essential to preserving the integrity of the entire American economy.”

“By claiming that these federal resources are nothing more than an unnecessary political favor, those who oppose this funding once again reveal how they are actively rooting against America’s economic success,” Hoyer added.

Mfume said he has a call into Speaker Mike Johnson in hopes of securing the Louisiana Republican’s support for a bipartisan approach to rebuilding the span. The Maryland Democrat predicted it may take several months to clear the channel and said there have been preliminary discussions about erecting a temporary bridge.

He declined to offer an estimate for how much the eventual reconstruction may cost, but still said he’s “optimistic” Congress will eventually come together to “move with quick dispatch” — as it did following the 2007 collapse of a Minnesota bridge and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast.

But Meuser isn’t alone in his wariness of approving federal funds. Several other lawmakers from both parties appeared hesitant Thursday about Congress approving rebuilding money until insurance and shipping companies pay the costs they’re responsible for stemming from the tragic collision of a freighter with the bridge. Six workers are presumed dead in connection with the accident; the total bill for rebuilding is likely to be billions of dollars.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), for one, said he would support federal funding to rebuild the bridge — with the “caveat” that the company behind the freighter needs to pay out any required damages.

“We shouldn’t be spending taxpayers’ money if the insurance company has a responsibility,” Grassley said.

That’s also the message from Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House’s transportation committee and the former insurance commissioner of California.

“I don’t think it has to be federal taxpayer money,” he told Bloomberg TV in an interview. “Let’s first go to the insurance side of it and then we’ll see what’s left over.”

Garamendi added that environmental concerns ought to be “secondary — or maybe not even considered” as Maryland seeks to rebuild the bridge as quickly as possible.

Biden said in the aftermath of the disaster that he intended for the federal government “pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge, and I expect the Congress to support my effort.” However, congressional leaders have been quiet so far on their plans concerning the rebuild, as they await firm cost estimates of the money that must be appropriated for it.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told reporters Thursday that a cost estimate for rebuilding the bridge and reopening the Port of Baltimore was underway.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg confirmed Wednesday during a White House press conference that the Biden administration could tap into some emergency funds in the short term but called it “likely” that lawmakers would be asked “to help top up those funds” as the project advances.

Congress has acted swiftly to provide emergency funds after previous major bridge collapses, though many supporters of aid for Baltimore concede that the Hill’s current dysfunction will make that task far more difficult than it was in 2007 — when lawmakers took mere days to approve money for the rebuilding of that Minnesota bridge.

“This is a very different Congress right now. It’s very partisan,” Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said on CNN on Thursday. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to do something.”

Mfume said the toll of the disaster is still sinking in for his district.

“It just tears at you because there’s so little you can do at this point, as an observer, no matter what our title is,” he said. “I’m still kind of depressed about the tragedy but optimistic about our way out.”

Meredith Lee Hill contributed to this report.