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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Commentary: Area congressmen voted against a fix for the Brent Spence. Thankfully, it doesn't matter


If you were a member of Congress from Southwest Ohio or Northern Kentucky, it might seem like a no-brainer to vote in favor of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

After all, it could solve a decades-long dilemma – and clear and present danger – posed by the worn-out, over-used and obsolete Brent Spence Bridge that joins Ohio and Kentucky, on one of the most important north-south highways in the nation.

An estimated 80-90% of the approximately $2 billion it would cost to build a brand-new companion bridge could come from that bill; and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday the federal funding would eliminate the need for tolls to pay for a new bridge, a bone of contention for a long time.

It passed the Senate in August and the House last week with bipartisan support. Ohio's junior senator, Republican Rob Portman, helped negotiate the deal that allowed congressional Democrats and the Biden administration to pass the infrastructure bill.

rob portman infrastructure bill
J. Scott Applewhite
In July 28, 2021, the bipartisan group of Senate negotiators, from left, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.; and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speak to reporters just after a vote to start work on a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, at the Capitol in Washington. Senators are convening for a rare weekend session on the bipartisan infrastructure bill as they edge toward a vote, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021.

Of course, it had the support of Ohio's senior senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown, who worked with Portman to hammer out the bridge repair and replacement portion of the infrastructure bill.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator, was in Covington, praising passage of the bill.

“This will be the first time I’ve come up here in a quarter of a century when I thought maybe there was a way forward on the Brent Spence Bridge,” McConnell said in Covington.

mitch mconnell covington
Tana Weingartner
Sen. Mitch McConnell visited the Life Learning Center in Covington Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.

Even President Biden, who scored a big legislative victory with passage of the infrastructure bill, has specifically pointed to the Brent Spence Bridge as a project that could become a reality with the federal dollars.

In a town hall meeting in Cincinnati in July, Biden promised that his administration would "fix that damn bridge of yours" if the infrastructure bill passed.

And it did pass. With bipartisan support.

So, this sounds like it would be a slam dunk "yes" vote for the rest of the Tri-State's members of Congress, all Republicans, who have a stake in what happens with the Brent Spence Bridge, yes?

Well, no.

They all voted against it.

Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Thomas Massie on the Kentucky side of the river; on the Ohio side, all Southwest Ohio Republican congressmen voted no – Steve Chabot of the First Congressional District; Brad Wenstrup of the Second District; and Eighth District congressman Warren Davidson of Troy, whose district extends to Butler County.

It seems counter-intuitive.

But they seemed to be following the lead of the former president, Donald Trump, who had been speaking out loudly against the infrastructure bill. Infrastructure was a subject he talked about a great deal when president (including at an event on the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati in 2017), without ever doing anything about it.

"There once was a time when people who lived on rivers were pro-bridge, irrespective of the moment or the mood or who was in charge," said David Niven, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.

"Being pro-bridge wasn't partisan, or ideological, it was merely a reflection of at least a rudimentary understanding that people need to get to the other side," Niven said. "That time, however, has ended."

Most of those Republicans said they opposed the infrastructure bill because they believed it was tied to another massive Biden administration plan – the Build Back Better bill, which would include nearly $2 trillion for social programs, climate programs and a host of other items.

Even Portman and McConnell, who voted for the infrastructure bill, have said they oppose Build Back Better.

Build Back Better is a separate bill; and it is likely that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will try to bring it to a vote in the House later this month.

How did the Republican members of Congress explain their votes on infrastructure? Here's a sampling:

  • Chabot, in a written statement we asked for, also tied the infrastructure bill to Build Back Better. “There’s no question that we need to significantly invest in repairing and rebuilding our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.  Unfortunately, Democrats in Washington have inextricably tied much-needed infrastructure spending to trillions and trillions of dollars in wasteful, unnecessary programs which will only serve to further drive inflation, increasing costs for American families on everything from energy to food to Christmas gifts.”  
  • Wenstrup's written response to our request for a statement on his vote was much the same: “I support hard infrastructure and the regulatory reform needed to complete such projects in a timely and cost-effective manner. Unfortunately, the legislation passed in the dead of night last Friday lacked the reforms needed, is not fully paid for, and is tied directly to an even bigger, trillion-dollar social spending bill. I believe that we can do better for the taxpayer, and we should."
  • Massie on Sunday retweeted a post that read, "the same GOP that couldn't pass a bill to fund Trump's border wall just helped pass Biden's trillion dollar infrastructure bill."

  • Paul, when he voted against the infrastructure bill in August, released a statement saying that the bill “is not just about roads and bridges and clean water, it’s step one of the `Green New Deal … The plan also adds at least $250 billion in new debt. Instead of bringing down soaring gas prices, it will push them even higher along with the price of food and other necessities soaring from inflation. This is not the plan Kentucky families need.”

The votes of those Republican members of Congress from Ohio and Kentucky puts them directly in opposition to a rather influential organization, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

The Chamber is by no means an organization full of flaming, tax-and-spend liberals, but they know a good deal when they see it.

The day after the late-night vote by the House which made the infrastructure bill a reality, the Chamber put out a statement praising the vote and thanking Ohio's senators, Portman and Brown, for the roles they played in getting it done.

"This legislation will provide critical investments for the infrastructure needs that are vital to connecting our region," said Jill P. Meyer, president and CEO of the Chamber. "The funding provided will bring the repair and replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge closer to becoming a reality than ever before. It also marks the largest federal investment in public transit while also funding airports, waterways, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, electric vehicle charging stations, and broadband and power infrastructure."

No mention of the members of the Ohio and Kentucky delegations who were of no help whatsoever.

And those members of Congress, for the most part, blame Build Back better for their no votes on the infrastructure bill.

How is it then that Republicans like Portman and McConnell seem to be able to separate the two in their minds? Both of those senators have made it clear that they have no use for Build Back Better but are completely on board with the infrastructure bill.

It is a head-scratcher.

"Now we have members of Congress not only voting against a bill but totally disengaged from the process while representing a region where crumbling infrastructure is not a theoretical potential future problem, but as real as the daily question of whether the interstate highway bridge is even open today," Niven said.

"We shouldn't let the fact that this is predictable diminish the fact that it is also astonishing," Niven said. "To see everything as a partisan battle is not a badge of courage but a commitment to dysfunction."

The good news, though, is that the opportunity to finally do something about "that damn bridge" will go forward without them.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.