Meet Trump's secret weapon on infrastructure

Meet Trump's secret weapon on infrastructure
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Elaine Chao could be President Trump’s secret weapon to help pass a massive infrastructure bill.

Her political and personal ties to Capitol Hill were on full display during her confirmation hearing to be Transportation secretary earlier this month, when senators peppered her with compliments and questions about her ideas for revitalizing the nation’s aging infrastructure.

Chao, a former Labor secretary who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress had a good couple of weeks — now let's keep it going McCarthy: 'The Mueller investigation has got to stop' McConnell: Mueller 'ought to wrap it up' MORE (R-Ky.) and is expected to easily win confirmation, will be tasked with overseeing Trump’s promised $1 trillion rebuilding package.

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Trump doubled down on his pledge during the inauguration, vowing to erect “new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation.”

Here are three ways in which Chao could be key to helping Trump fulfill that promise.

 

Friendships across the aisle

Trump will need the support of some Senate Democrats to push a bill through Congress, especially if fiscal conservatives and rural Republicans hesitate to back his ambitious proposal.

Democrats are already threatening to oppose any bill that only provides tax credits to private investors, an idea Trump has proposed.

Chao could serve as a bridge between skeptical Democrats and the new administration.

She is well-liked and respected on both sides of aisle, and has personal relationships with several key members and their families. Democrats were just as effusive in praising Chao as Republicans during her hearing.

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Transportation Committee, pointed out that his wife and Chao are the “dearest of friends.”

“I have watched you as you have comported yourself in a previous administration as a Cabinet member, and it has been with grace and excellence that you have done so,” Nelson said. “I certainly look forward to you in this new administration doing the same.”

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, another member on the panel, joked that he and McConnell have something in common: “We both married above ourselves.”

Those relationships may come in handy when working to convince Democrats to play along with Trump on an infrastructure package. It could also benefit Democrats hoping to get some of their ideas and concerns addressed in the legislation.

 

Vast Cabinet experience

Chao is a veteran Cabinet member, having served under two previous Republican presidents.

She ran the Department of Labor under President George W. Bush and served as deputy Transportation secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration. Chao was also Federal Maritime Commission chairwoman and deputy Maritime administrator.

Infrastructure advocates are expecting Chao to hit the ground running, having experience navigating the sometimes bumpy path of leading an agency under a new administration. Chao already told senators she plans to put together an infrastructure “task force” on day one to start exploring ideas.

Having already worked at the Department of Transportation also means it will likely take her less time to get up to speed on key issues.

“Elaine Chao is a friend and proven leader with the necessary experience and policy insights to helm the Department of Transportation during this critical time,” Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), said in a statement. “Now is the time for a bold and serious investment in our nation’s highways and bridges, railways and airports, seaports and pipelines.” 

 

Support from GOP leadership

Of course, even more important than Democratic support is the backing of GOP leadership.

Chao’s husband, McConnell, will be the gatekeeper to whether, when and how any infrastructure bill is taken up on the Senate floor. The upper chamber will be facing a packed legislative calendar, especially in the first 100 days, which is when Trump initially promised to deliver a proposal to Congress.

If McConnell makes the issue a top priority, House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWhite House faces growing outcry over migrant family policies John Legend slams Paul Ryan for Father's Day tweet, demands end to family separation Trump faces Father’s Day pleas to end separations of migrant families MORE (R-Wis.) may be reluctant to buck the Senate's top Republican.

McConnell was not shy about extolling his relationship with Chao when he introduced her at the confirmation hearing.

“The nominee before us is well-qualified, incredibly capable, and she's got really great judgment … on a whole variety of things," McConnell said. “She will be brilliant.”

Chao joked back in her own remarks: "I'll be working to lock in the majority leader's support over dinner," she said.