Donald Trump’s campaign promise of a $1 trillion infrastructure package is beginning to fade on Capitol Hill, crowded out by other priorities on GOP leaders’ wish lists.
The president-elect’s bold talk about creating millions of jobs while making America’s roads, bridges and airports “second to none” is turning into an afterthought for congressional Republicans who have spent eight years wrangling over debt limits and bemoaning President Barack Obama’s $832 billion stimulus. In a radio appearance Wednesday where he outlined the GOP’s 200-day agenda, House Speaker Paul Ryan ticked off typical red-meat issues such as repealing Obamacare, overhauling the tax code and easing regulations, before finally tossing in a nod to “the infrastructure package, which is something President-elect Trump added to our agenda, which we’re happy to do.”
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Vice President-elect Mike Pence had a similarly lukewarm message at a news conference with Senate GOP leaders. “We’ll have an infrastructure bill,” he said Wednesday, but “the first order of business” is repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Indeed, Republican leaders have scarcely mentioned anything besides Obamacare since being sworn in Tuesday, while the Senate has a raft of Cabinet nominees to confirm. That’s left little room for an infrastructure proposal that Trump has yet to sketch out in detail — and which some conservative groups began talking down within days of his Nov. 8 victory.
This is drawing dismay from some leading Democrats, who saw infrastructure as one of the few pieces of Trump’s agenda they could embrace, while transportation advocates have tried to put a brave face on the slow-walking.
Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, portrayed infrastructure spending as a potentially big divide between the builder-turned-president-elect and more spending-averse GOP budget hawks such as Ryan.
“Certainly Trump, a businessman, understands the difference between capital investment and plain old spending, which our budget process and our Republicans don’t seem to understand,” DeFazio said.
More optimistically, U.S. Chamber of Commerce infrastructure advocate Ed Mortimer told POLITICO he’s confident a transportation package will find its place in the Republican agenda.
“Look, even before the new president has taken office, we already have commitments from the speaker of the House that this is going to be part of a budget resolution; we have both House and Senate authorizing chairs saying that they want to work with the new administration on a plan,” said Mortimer, the chamber’s executive director of transportation infrastructure. “Obviously we’d all love to know more about the plan, but I think we are going to have an infrastructure bill in 2017, which really is our number one priority.”
Andrew Brady, senior director of government affairs at the American Public Transportation Association, said he’s hardly surprised that Republicans are tackling Obamacare first.
“I don’t think anyone thought you could pass a large-scale infrastructure initiative in the first 100 days,” he said.
Another infrastructure booster, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), even insisted that the first 100 days is still a likely timetable.
“If you ask anyone in the leadership of the Commerce Committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee — and I’m on both — I would say no, we’re not stepping away,” Inhofe said. “I mean, that is one of the things we both need desperately and can agree on.”
House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) told The Hill on Wednesday that the pay-fors will come “I believe in the first 100 days,” but that the “second 100 days is when we’ll put together a big infrastructure package.”
Still, the parties are sharply divided on what a big infrastructure bill should look like. And not even Trump has spelled out whether his $1 trillion proposal would actually boost federal spending on transportation projects, as opposed to drawing in money from the private sector. In contrast, Obama’s 2009 stimulus package included about $48 billion of federal money for transportation infrastructure such as roads, bridges, transit, railroads and airports.
Transportation experts have said a close reading of what Trump’s advisers have written about infrastructure suggests that his plan will focus primarily on private financing and using tax credits to offer incentives to the private sector to invest in infrastructure. While Republicans are cautiously interested in that idea, it’s not flying with Democrats, who say public infrastructure requires public funding.
“A program of tax cuts isn’t going to get the job done, no matter how large,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday, while noting the huge backlog of infrastructure projects across the country. He called for “significant, direct spending.”
DeFazio said any plan based on tax credits is “nonsensical.”
“If Trump wants to get something done that’s meaningful that relates to surface transportation, that has to be real money,” he said, such as raising the gasoline tax, instituting a tax on oil or issuing some kind of bonds.
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the new top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said he wasn’t interested in a “big, splashy, one-time” package — including Obama’s stimulus plan — saying he’d rather address how to sustain the dwindling Highway Trust Fund and find new ways to fund infrastructure over the long term.
Meanwhile, some GOP leaders such as Ryan have long expressed aversion to anything resembling a big, Obama-style stimulus plan. At a speech in September, when asked about the pricey infrastructure plans being floated by both Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Wisconsin Republican responded by noting that lawmakers had just enacted a multibillion-dollar transportation bill.
Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell slammed the door on the idea of “a trillion-dollar stimulus.” Incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus answered a question about infrastructure in December by saying that “I would love to not get into the details with you.”
Even Trump has sent mixed signals, telling The New York Times soon after his election that infrastructure wouldn’t be “the core” of his first years in the White House. “We’re going for a lot of things, between taxes, between regulations, between health care replacement,” he said at the time. He added that infrastructure wasn’t a big part of his plan to create jobs, saying, “I think I am doing things that are more important than infrastructure.”
So if his package is going to get a big push, lawmakers expect that it will have to come from Trump himself. “I think it’s going to be driven by the administration,” Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said Wednesday. “At some point they might come and consult with us about what that might look like.”
Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), a Trump transition team member, indicated the same thing Tuesday.
DeFazio suggested Democrats may just bypass their GOP colleagues, saying: “We might have a dialogue with the Trump administration. I don’t think we’re going to have a dialogue with Republican leadership in the House. They’ve closed that door pretty well.”
Lauren Gardner and Brianna Gurciullo contributed to this report.