GOP flashes stop sign at Trump on gas tax

GOP flashes stop sign at Trump on gas tax
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Republicans are balking over President Trump’s openness to raising the federal gas tax to help pay for U.S. roads and highways — a politically fraught issue that lawmakers have avoided for years.

There are a handful of GOP lawmakers who are champions of increasing the gas tax, something that hasn’t happened in more than two decades.

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But the signals coming out of the White House appear to be at odds with GOP leadership and influential conservatives, who have repeatedly been put in the uncomfortable spot of having to square their positions with the president’s.

“I oppose raising taxes, and I oppose adding to the debt,” Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoDems force 'Medicare for All' on Americans but exempt themselves GOP sees fresh opening with Dems’ single payer embrace Overnight Health Care: CBO predicts 15 percent ObamaCare premium hike | Trump calls Sanders single-payer plan ‘curse on the US’ | Republican seeks score of Sanders’s bill MORE (R-Wyo.), chairman of Republican Policy Committee and head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, told The Hill. “There are a lot of ways we can do the funding [for infrastructure].”

Trump made waves this week when he told Bloomberg News that he would “certainly consider” hiking the gas tax to help pay for transportation projects.

His comments earned rare praise from The New York Times editorial board, which proclaimed in a headline on Wednesday: “Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE’s Very Good Idea: Raise the Gas Tax.”

“Every once in a while, President Trump says something that really makes sense,” the editorial says.

The Highway Trust Fund, which provides money for road construction and other transportation projects across the country, is financed by a federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel.   

The taxes have been frozen since 1993, while their buying power has been sapped by improvements in car fuel efficiency in recent years.  

A hike in the tax would help fix the ailing Highway Trust Fund, which the Congressional Budget Office predicts will be insolvent in the next decade without concrete solutions.

The increase could also help pay for Trump’s yet-to-be unveiled $1 trillion infrastructure package without adding to the deficit.

But White House press secretary Sean Spicer, seeming to recognize that Trump may have waded into dangerous political territory, walked back the president’s remarks on Monday.

Spicer emphasized that Trump had agreed to consider the request of a transportation group that met with him and expressed support for raising fuel taxes.

Still, the administration has not yet shut the door on the idea — a stark contrast to leaders of Trump’s own party.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate passes 0B defense bill Overnight Health Care: New GOP ObamaCare repeal bill gains momentum Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE (R-Ky.) ruled out a gas tax hike to pay for the last multiyear highway bill, which ended up using a series of budgetary gimmicks instead.

Across the Capitol, both Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanRyan: Graham-Cassidy 'best, last chance' to repeal ObamaCare Ryan: Americans want to see Trump talking with Dem leaders Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have long been staunchly opposed to the idea. An aide for McCarthy said the lawmaker’s stance has not changed.

“The then-chairman of Ways and Means, who is the Speaker now, said we’re not going to do a tax,” recalled Rep. Mark AmodeiMark Eugene AmodeiOvernight Finance: House passes .2T funding package for 2018 | FTC launches Equifax probe | Mnuchin defends honeymoon jet request | House scraps measure to boost credit union regulator oversight Trump’s EPA budget cuts hit strong opposition at House panel MORE (R-Nev.), who co-sponsored a bill in the previous Congress to raise the gas tax. “A well-thought-out, regular-order, ran-the-traps proposal was rejected out of hand, which was frustrating.”

The current chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee delivered a similar sentiment on Monday.

Rep. Kevin BradyKevin BradyOvernight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea Week ahead in finance: Clock ticking for GOP on tax reform Liberal groups want Mnuchin off GOP tax group following airplane controversies MORE (R-Texas), when asked if he’d rule out a gas tax increase, said he would because his panel developed a tax blueprint on the assumption that infrastructure tax issues would be addressed separately by transportation leaders.

“In my view, yes, but we’re going to have that discussion. I’m talking just individually,” Brady said. “But we’re going to have that discussion with the White House, and we want to learn more about the president’s ideas.”

Lawmakers from both parties have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump to help finance construction projects. 

Many congressional Republicans who signed an anti-tax pledge have avoided raising the gas tax because it would likely be viewed as a tax hike.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, called it an “old solution to a problem today” and said he prefers to come up with revenues from elsewhere.

“There seems to be a real pushback on the gas tax, just because it’s increasing a tax,” said Meadows, who emphasized that he hasn’t taken a formal stance on the issue.

Other GOP lawmakers argue the tax is not a sustainable, long-term funding solution, because vehicles are becoming increasingly fuel efficient and people are relying less on cars.

“The problem with the gas tax is it’s so regressive,” Rep. Sam GravesSam GravesGOP signals infrastructure bill must wait House Republicans work to torpedo Trump’s air traffic control plan White House works to sell House Republicans on Trump’s air traffic control plan MORE (R-Mo.) told The Hill. “We’re getting more and more vehicles on the road that aren’t paying the gas tax, the gas mileage is getting better and better, so I think we need to switch to something else. It’s not viable.”

Rep. Rob WoodallRob WoodallGOP budget chair may not finish her term Ensuring air ambulances don’t save lives only to ruin them with surprise medical bills Senators fight proposed tariffs on solar panels MORE (R-Ga.) said fuel taxes are not particularly effective, but the idea keeps coming up in discussion because it’s just “the one we know.”

Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeA third of Congress hasn’t held a town hall — it’s time to take action Anonymous affiliate publishes claimed list of GOP private contact info Wasting America’s nuclear opportunity MORE (R-Okla.), former chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said he hopes Trump comes up with something “a lot more creative” than a gas tax hike to pay for infrastructure upgrades.

“He’s in a unique position to come up with some ideas we haven’t tried before,” he told The Hill.

Raising the tax is also likely to run into a wall of opposition from powerful outside conservative groups such as Americans for Tax Reform, which is behind the so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

“There is no need — and no excuse for a tax hike,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said in a statement. “We can have more roads at lower prices if Congress repeals destructive laws and rules it itself established for sordid reasons.”

But there is a small and fervent group of Republicans who are proponents of a gas tax increase, which has the backing of the business community, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a growing number of red states.

Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) authored legislation in 2015 that would hike the federal gas tax and index it to inflation, unless Congress comes up with other funding ideas within two years.

“I was appreciative to hear the president say it was an idea he would consider,” Renacci said in a telephone interview. “It would be great to have the support of congressional leaders.”

Rep. Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaTop Trump ally announces Senate run in Pennsylvania Barletta to announce Senate bid Tuesday: report Pennsylania Dems file ethics complaint against Rep. Barletta MORE (R-Pa.), an early Trump supporter who was part of the transition team, has backed several bills over the past few years that would raise or index fuel taxes.

He is the lone Republican co-sponsor of a new Democratic bill that would raise the gas tax by about 1 cent per year.

“We need reoccurring revenue for infrastructure so we don’t have to keep pulling a rabbit out of our hat every four years,” Barletta told The Hill. “A user fee, a gas tax, makes the most sense right now. It’s not the silver bullet … but it can be one of the funding tools.”

Barletta has stuck his neck out in support of the idea, despite having signed the anti-tax pledge from Americans for Tax Reform.

“We have to have a sustainable funding source. To not do so just because of a pledge like that, I think wouldn’t be the right thing for us to do,” Barletta said.

But other lawmakers may not be as willing to ditch their anti-tax pledge to go along with fuel tax increases.

Even if Trump were to give his full-throated support for the concept, his endorsement seems unlikely to change the political reality in Congress.

“It’s probably hard for anybody to support a gas tax. So that’s strike two against it,” Graves said. “It’s hard to pass something like that. Every member in Congress is worried about their own election.”

Naomi Jagoda contributed.