Democrats cool to Trump’s infrastructure pitch
The White House is preparing to unveil its long-awaited $1 trillion infrastructure plan soon after President Donald Trump signs the GOP tax overhaul, hoping to begin 2018 with another big legislative win — but its approach is already drawing resistance from Democrats who are in no mood to cooperate.
The plan set for release in January is expected to call for as much as $200 billion in federal spending over the next decade, with the rest coming from private investment, state or local funding and cuts to other federal programs. An administration official added new details this week, telling POLITICO that a wide variety of projects — from bridges to broadband — would have to compete for federal assistance, while showing they’re prepared to put their own money on the table.
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The “primary” factor for cities and states wanting help from Washington would be how much revenue they are willing to raise, from taxes, fees or other sources, the official said.
White House officials have said they plan to release their plan as a lengthy statement of “principles” sometime before Trump delivers his State of the Union address Jan. 30. It would be up to Congress to convert it into legislation — and it’s unknown how quickly that will happen as lawmakers wrestle with other priorities like a spending bill, potential changes to safety net programs or perhaps another whack at repealing Obamacare.
None of the package’s details so far are music to the ears of Democrats, who have pitched their own proposal for $1 trillion in new federal infrastructure money and who have said they won’t support a plan stuffed with budget cuts and environmental rule rollbacks. An infrastructure package would need 60 votes in the Senate, making Democrats the key to its success, even before Alabama Sen.-elect Doug Jones’ upset victory Tuesday.
Many questions remain, but Democrats say they’ve already heard enough about the still-unreleased plan to be skeptical.
“I don’t know what the path is,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee. “I think we’re lost in the wilderness.”
DeFazio observed that the administration has been “rolling out concepts for a year,” and ticked off some of the ways its proposal has morphed since Trump took office. Those include the administration’s flirtation with so-called public-private partnerships, in which private entities would use tolls or other revenue to recoup the costs of projects — a concept that Trump told lawmakers in September he had soured on.
“They’ve gone from a trillion dollars to $200 billion that would be done with [public-private partnerships], and then Trump doesn’t like [public-private partnerships], so it’s $200 billion that [White House aide D.J. Gribbin] said last week would be cut from other domestic spending,” DeFazio said.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, the Senate Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, scoffed at the thought that states and localities would raise their own taxes or enter into public-private partnerships to pay for infrastructure needs, including those already covered by the cash-strapped Highway Trust Fund.
“They’re not going to do that to repair the Interstates. They’re not going to do that to repair the 50,000 bridges that are structurally unsound,” Nelson said. “They’re not going to do that for the expansion of sewer and water systems and broadband.”
Even a top Republican infrastructure advocate, House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster, has had questions about the idea of expecting states and local governments to pick up at least some of the tab.
“Well, I gotta see exactly what they mean by it,” the Pennsylvania Republican said last week. “Some of it sounds a little bit like devolution. And I’ve not talked to a single governor that wants the federal government not to have a role. It’s a national transportation system.”
Shuster later met with Trump in the White House on Monday to discuss the plan. He has declined repeatedly to elaborate on what was discussed, beyond a short statement declaring the meeting “productive.”
The administration is well aware it needs Democrats on board to get its infrastructure push formalized into legislation and then passed by Congress, the White House official told POLITICO this week.