Biden Pledges Full Federal Support for Baltimore as Conservatives Make Demands

Biden Pledges Full Federal Support for Baltimore as Conservatives Make Demands

Julia Nikhinson/Reuters

President Joe Biden visited Baltimore on Friday to survey the wreck of the Francis Scott Key Bridge and offer continued support for the reconstruction effort.

“I’m here to say your nation has your back,” Biden said after receiving a briefing from local officials. “The damage is devastating and our hearts are still breaking,” he added, referring to the loss experienced by the local community, which includes the deaths of six road workers. He pledged “to move heaven and Earth to rebuild this bridge as rapidly as humanly possible.”

Biden said he expects the port of Baltimore to reopen to some commercial traffic by the end of April, with the main channel open by the end of May. And he repeated his call for the federal government to cover all costs associated with clearing the wreckage and rebuilding the bridge.

“I call on Congress to authorize this effort as soon as possible,” the president said. “We will support Maryland and Baltimore every step of the way to help you rebuild and maintain all the business and commerce that’s here now.”

White House budget director Shalanda Young sent a letter to congressional leaders Friday asking lawmakers for their prompt cooperation. “The Federal Government should cover any needed costs for reconstructing the bridge,” she wrote. “While we continue to assess those costs alongside our Federal and State partners, we are asking the Congress to join us in demonstrating our commitment to aid in recovery efforts by authorizing a 100 percent Federal cost share for rebuilding the bridge.”

Young noted that such authorization would be consistent with previous bridge disasters, including the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota in 2007. And she said the Biden administration would pursue payments from private firms and insurance companies connected to the disaster, to “reduce costs for the American people.”

Conservatives make demands: The House Freedom Caucus said Friday that it has a list of demands related to providing federal funds for the reconstruction of the bridge. The far-right group with about three dozen members said that before Congress considers providing funds, it wants to see an effort to recover money from “foreign shipping companies.” It also wants the Port of Baltimore to draw first on existing federal funds, and if any new funds are necessary, they must be “fully offset.”

That’s not all. In addition, the caucus said that “burdensome” federal regulations, such as the Endangered Species Act and labor agreements, must be waived during the rebuilding, and any supplemental spending bill must be focused only on the bridge project. Finally, the group demanded that the Biden administration lift its pause on the approval of liquified natural gas terminals, which have been in limbo since January.

What comes next: Congress may consider a supplemental bill to provide additional funds to Baltimore when lawmakers return next week, but there is no clear plan yet and there are many competing priorities, including a possible aid bill for Ukraine. Opposition from some conservatives in the House may make the hurdle to providing timely aid to the port city that much higher.