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House Republican says party backlash for infrastructure vote 'small price to pay' as tensions simmer

"At the end of the day, it was all about my district. Is this bill good for my district? And the answer is yes," Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., said.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., speaks during a press conference outside the Capitol on Nov. 1, 2021.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., at a news conference outside the Capitol on Nov. 1.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images file

After Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., voted for the roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package last month, her office was inundated with angry phone calls.

She wasn't alone. The 13 Republicans who voted for the legislation drew ire from the party's growing far-right flank and former President Donald Trump, who said he would support primary challengers. Phone lines were flooded, and some members got death threats. In Nassau County, New York, a man was arrested and accused of making an explicit death threat against Rep. Andrew Garbarino, R-N.Y., who voted for the infrastructure package, The Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., publicly posted the names and phone numbers of GOP House members who voted for the bill, calling them "traitors."

But any such intimidation hasn't shaken Malliotakis, who said in an interview that she stands by the vote and believes the package will be of immense benefit to her conservative-leaning district, which spans Staten Island and a swath of southwest Brooklyn.

"I feel for my colleagues who have had to endure some of these horrific threatening phone calls. Look, we received many calls here. Most were not direct threats," she said. "It really shows how polarizing and toxic the political environment has become when an elected official is getting a threat over infrastructure — one of the things that everybody loves."

"It's unfortunate, but it's a small price to pay for doing what's right for my district and for the country," she added of the backlash she has experienced.

Traditionally, infrastructure spending hasn't inflamed partisan tensions similar to issues like abortion rights, immigration or health care. But this isn't a usual political environment. While Trump recently expressed no ill will toward Malliotakis in an interview with the New York Post, in which he said he still supports her after they spoke by phone, the episode reflects the larger power struggle between Republicans who would like to land bipartisan wins and those who fashion themselves as Trump loyalists and view such votes as akin to treason.

Malliotakis said voting for the package was a no-brainer because of the billions of dollars in infrastructure funding that would come to the state, the city and her district, in particular. She mentioned updating local sewer systems that were overwhelmed by Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Ida, completing coastal resiliency projects, improving congested highways and modernizing ports and a trio of area airports, among other initiatives her district stands to benefit from.

Of the 13 House Republicans who backed the bill, six were from New York or neighboring New Jersey.

"This bill is something that we need," she said. "For decades, local and national leaders have failed to make the necessary investments in our infrastructure to modernize it and keep it up, keep pace with economic growth and bring it into the 21st century, particularly in an aging city like New York.

"We went through this bill. ... We had months to review it," she added. "And at the end of the day, it was all about my district. Is this bill good for my district? And the answer is yes."

She said much of the backlash is the result of voters' confusing the bill with President Joe Biden's wide-ranging social safety net and climate action plan, the Build Back Better Act, which she opposes. Malliotakis said her office was inundated with calls, many of which, she said, were from out-of-state voters, although not all were negative.

"I think people were clear that they saw the [phone] number posted by one of our colleagues," she said of Greene, whom Malliotakis voted this year to strip of her committee assignments. "There was a lot of misinformation made by that individual in particular, false information about this bill, mischaracterizations about this bill, saying this bill was only 10 percent infrastructure. That is completely false. This bill is cover-to-cover infrastructure."

In New York's 11th Congressional District, which Malliotakis represents, NBC News found mixed reaction to her vote in speaking with about a half-dozen voters. Some were upset to hear that Malliotakis had voted for the deal, linking it to the social safety net and climate legislation. Others were pleased or at least open to the legislation, which includes $555 billion in new spending.

In front of a Dunkin' on Staten Island, Gregory DiStefano said he was delighted that she backed the package, saying, "The money that's going to come is going to transform the country."

"It's about time she voted the proper way," said DiStefano, 73, a Democratic voter from the borough, adding that he felt she "should have voted" for Trump's second impeachment this year. "But, you know, most of Staten Island is not like that."

Then, a middle-age man cut in.

"Nicole Malliotakis sold out! She sold out, bro," said the man, who returned later to add: "Why would we give [Biden] a win? Why would we give him a f------ win?"

He refused to give his name or take further questions.

"They make everything political here in Staten Island," DiStefano said.

Peter Molinelli, 64, a Staten Islander who backed Malliotakis last year, said he was OK with the vote and is willing to give the bill a chance depending on how the money is spent.

"I was surprised, because I thought all the Republicans would stay together," he said. "But I'm not against it. Because you know what? We do need infrastructure."

Joan Canu, 71, a former Democrat who identifies as a political independent, said she applauded Malliotakis for her vote. She said she hoped the bill would provide for projects to better control flooding and cut commute times between the island and the rest of New York City.

"It's just a shame that they're taking so much heat for it," she said.

Malliotakis, a former state Assembly member who lost a 2017 bid for mayor, was elected last year after a heated race against Democratic Rep. Max Rose. She has framed herself as a counter to "the squad," a group of uber-progressive Democratic House members. She won her district by more than 6 points last year, while Trump carried it by more than 10.

In her first year in Congress, Malliotakis objected to the presidential electors and voted against holding former top Trump aide Steve Bannon in contempt and against the bipartisan commission investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, in addition to voting for the infrastructure package and stripping Greene's committee assignments.

She has framed her infrastructure vote as taking "leverage" away from progressives who sought to advance both spending bills at once. Since the bipartisan infrastructure bill was passed, the House has advanced the social safety net and climate action legislation to the Senate.

Kevin Elkins, Rose's 2020 campaign manager, said Malliotakis' framing of the Build Back Better Act as socialism is hurting her among the conservative base after she voted to approve the infrastructure deal.

"Everybody knows that voting for that and passing that means you're going to pass the Build Back Better agenda," he said, referring to intra-Democratic Party dealmaking to get both bills passed. "And you best believe that all her voters who watched Fox News and saw all the infighting for six months about that very specific agreement until it came to [be] knows the same thing."

He said he has "never" seen a politician's base get so angry after a vote. Rose announced Monday that he is launching a bid to unseat Malliotakis and recapture the district.

"It was political suicide not to vote for it, and it was political suicide to vote for it," Elkins said. "She was very much in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't position."

But a prominent New York Republican who would only speak candidly on background said voting for the infrastructure package won't come back to bite Malliotakis next year.

"She understands that the large bulk of the people in Staten Island will appreciate the fact that she was taking care of their infrastructure," this person said. "This was bipartisan. In the House, it got ginned up. I think a lot of them were, frankly, scared of Trump. Otherwise, they would have voted for it."

Malliotakis declined to share details of her call with Trump, but she said that they support each other and that "we're just moving forward and pushing back on this spending bill."

Trump's political action committee released a Facebook ad Friday targeting "RINOs" — "Republicans in name only" —and "losers" he wants voted out of office. Included were several Republicans who supported the infrastructure package, like Garbarino and Reps. Don Bacon of Nebraska, David McKinley of West Virginia and Chris Smith of New Jersey.

Malliotakis, however, wasn't among them.