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After Hill funding fight, Buttigieg calls culture wars, drag show focus 'maddening'

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during a meeting of President Biden's Competition Council in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during a meeting of President Biden's Competition Council in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday slammed the growing political rhetoric and focus on culture war issues, such as LGBTQ concerns that overtook an appropriations debate on Capitol Hill earlier this week.

Buttigieg, the first openly gay man confirmed to a Cabinet position, made the remarks in a wide-ranging interview at the Department of Transportation with members of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

He said he had not "very closely" tracked the argument that broke out Tuesday in a House appropriations meeting on funding for transportation, housing and urban development. At the meeting Democrats slammed Republicans for proposing to eliminate funding for LGBTQ efforts, including community centers in Pennsylvania.

Buttigieg said the focus on such culture war issues isn't reflective of what's a major priority for communities across the country. He alluded to fights over drag shows and ads by beer companies that have led to boycotts.

"When I'm out in Wheeling, West Virginia or Pittsburgh at the airport or anywhere else, the questions are not about beer bottles or drag queens. The questions are about making sure that we can deliver these transportation assets that people can count on," he said. "It is maddening sometimes to look at the split screen on cable TV, and I'm trying to make sure people are aware of the literally tens of thousands of good projects we've already supported around the country."

In Tuesday's meeting, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro called Republicans "terrorists" for moving to block funding for LGBTQ centers and other programs. Republicans pushed back, arguing that they were not targeting specific groups, and asking for DeLauro's remarks to be "taken down," or removed from the record.

The hearing recessed several times after members traded insults.

Buttigieg says the political rhetoric focused on culture wars has ultimately eclipsed other major issues, including the annual funding measure for his agency and others that must pass to avert a government shutdown.

"We need to do two things and it should not be hard to do. One is to safeguard vulnerable groups as a matter of policy, which is something we believe in as administration and is the right thing to do, and another is to keep doing the work of taking care of the basics," he said.

Buttigieg also noted that his agency is closely watching if Congress will make next budgetary deadlines to fund his agency. The Fiscal Responsibility Act signed into law last month to lift the nation's debt ceiling also sets out new budget restraints.

"We're working to make sure that we can get the resources we need for what Americans were expecting of us in the context of some very real constraints presented by the Fiscal Responsibility Act," he said. "A lot of the [Infrastructure Act] money is advanced appropriated, but a lot of what we need to do isn't ... and so, as we get closer and closer to budget time, it's something we're going to be really concerned about."

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Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.