An infrastructure briefing by senior administration officials to a bipartisan group of senators was derailed on Tuesday by New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D.), who accused the administration of "killing people" by not prioritizing a multibillion-dollar tunnel project for her home state, a source familiar with the briefing told the Washington Free Beacon.
The briefing, delivered by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, President Trump's chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, and top White House aide for infrastructure policy D.J. Gibbin, came at the request of members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which will be responsible for overseeing the long-awaited infrastructure proposal.
The meeting was productive until the microphone was hijacked by Gillibrand, who scolded the officials for "killing people" by not committing to fund the Gateway Tunnel project. New York and New Jersey have requested $5.5 billion in federal grants and an additional $5.5 billion in federal loans to fund the rail project, but the proposal has been called "entirely unserious" by the administration.
Chao quickly shot back at Gillibrand's suggestion that the administration was putting people in danger, according to the source.
Chao attacked Gillibrand for bringing up safety as she continues to block the confirmation of her agency's top rail safety official Ronald Batory, who Gillibrand and her Democratic colleagues in New York and New Jersey say they will obstruct until the tunnel is funded.
Gillibrand's office did not return a request for comment on her claim the administration was "killing people."
The New York Democrat had hinted earlier Tuesday her plan to confront Chao, writing on Twitter that the tunnel is the "single most important" project in the country and needs "help from the federal government."
"I'm very concerned about the Trump administration's stance on this, and plan to ask Secretary Chao today to explain their position," Gillibrand wrote just before the briefing.
Gillibrand was one of just six senators to vote against Chao's confirmation as transportation secretary. She has committed herself, along with other senators from New York and New Jersey, to oppose all DOT nominees until the administration commits to funding the tunnel.
Committee leaders on both sides of the aisle praised the meeting as productive following its conclusion.
"I appreciate the time Secretary Chao and White House officials like Gary Cohn spent with our committee today, and I am hopeful that we will finally see the long-promised infrastructure proposal from the Trump administration sooner rather than later," Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the committee's top Democrat, said in a statement.
Carper added that he left the briefing confident the proposal had "potential to elicit bipartisan support here in Congress."
Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) said the "meeting gave senators the chance to have a direct back-and-forth with administration leadership on their priorities."
A senior administration official tells the Washington Free Beacon the states have still not even applied for the funding grants and are therefore many steps away from being eligible to receive the funds they're requesting.
The administration told the officials its infrastructure proposal would likely be released shortly after Trump's State of the Union address at the end of the month.
The White House said last week it welcomes the "continued participation" of New York on the infrastructure plan, but hinted it would not allow the local mega project to soak up funds needed for projects in the rest of the country.
"We're glad to see that members from New York would like to maintain that line of communication and welcome their continued participation as we work to fix our broken infrastructure system so that all qualified and responsible projects can go from concept to construction quickly and efficiently," White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters told the Free Beacon.