Dems eye big infrastructure package, with or without Trump

If Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Will Trump's racist tweets backfire? Al Green: 'We have the opportunity to punish' Trump with impeachment vote MORE (D-Calif.) and President TrumpDonald John TrumpDozens of British lawmakers stand behind 'Squad' amid Trump attacks #IStandWithIlhan trends after crowd at Trump rally chants 'Send her back' 'Racism' top search after Trump rally: Merriam Webster MORE can’t strike an infrastructure deal, key Democrats say they should push their own partisan bill through the House ahead of the 2020 elections.

That strategy, backers argue, would demonstrate to voters that they’re making good on the campaign promises that won them the lower chamber last year — and remain focused on those bread-and-butter issues looking ahead.

It would also allow Democrats to shift the conversation away from the intense focus on the many investigations into Trump, including special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s report, which they fear could alienate voters in crucial swing districts.

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“Why doesn't the House just pass a $2 trillion infrastructure bill with our pay-fors and then put the ball in the Senate and Trump's court?” asked Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaHouse to test Trump's veto pen on Saudi arms sales Sanders campaign vents frustration with media, polls Democrats ask Labor Department to investigate Amazon warehouses MORE, a San Francisco Bay–area Democrat and a leading progressive in Congress.

“I think we have to pass something that's really going to convince people the problem isn't politicians. The problem isn't broken Washington. The problem is this president and the Senate,” Khanna added. “If we don't do that, if it's just rhetorical, then I feel that [voters] are just going to increase the cynicism and most people will blame the entire Congress.”

Rep. Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Deadline approaches for 2020 Dems Dems eye big infrastructure package, with or without Trump Dems, Trump pull T surprise on infrastructure MORE (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he still intends to move a sweeping infrastructure package through his committee this year — even if talks with the White House break down.

Whether it gets a floor vote, he emphasized, is up to leadership. But he was quick to note that Democrats ran their successful 2018 campaign on a bare-bones message that featured just three line items: clean government, health care and infrastructure.

“One of the three key issues in us winning back the House was infrastructure,” said DeFazio, who attended the first new White House meeting on the issue on April 30. “I would certainly write a transportation bill.”

Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanDem tensions snag defense bill O'Rourke's defends his 'war tax' amid criticism Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments MORE (D-Calif.), another member of the Transportation panel, is endorsing that idea enthusiastically.

“I have always thought we should simply be full speed ahead. Waiting for the goalposts to stop moving with this administration, I think, is a recipe for paralysis and inaction,” Huffman said.

The price tag — and the difficult task of finding money to offset those costs — should not discourage Democratic leaders from forging ahead, Huffman said. DeFazio backs a gas tax hike, while progressives are pushing for corporations that now pay zero taxes to fork over money for infrastructure.

“Having promised to do infrastructure, we can't be afraid of the pay-for and let that be an excuse for inaction,” Huffman said, advocating a plan of “at least” $2 trillion. “We’ve got a lot of need out there.”

DeFazio, however, questioned why Democrats would stick their necks out to come up with offsets for a package that was sure to go nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate. Some of those funding sources would likely be unpopular and could prove politically perilous to centrists who face tough elections next year.

“Probably the Republicans wouldn’t be very supportive,” he said, “If it's just going to be a one-house bill, I don't think there's a great desire to walk the plank on funding.”

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The debate comes as many Republicans, particularly those in control of the Senate, are balking at the enormous $2 trillion price tag for infrastructure that Trump agreed to in talks with Democratic leaders earlier in the month. The GOP grumbling has led to widespread doubts about the fate of the negotiations.

Still, many Democrats are holding out hope that Trump, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerLawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US Colombian official urges more help for Venezuelan migrants MORE (D-N.Y.) can reach a bipartisan agreement to address the nation’s aging roads, bridges, waterways and other projects.

The two sides shook hands on that $2 trillion figure a couple weeks ago at the White House and are aiming to meet again during the week of May 20 to negotiate the hard part: how exactly to pay for it all.

That’s why Pelosi isn’t tipping her hand about her next move if negotiations with Trump collapse. Other Democrats want to give Pelosi and Schumer space to get a deal rather than turn quickly to what Republicans would surely deride as a 2020 Democratic messaging bill.

“I think we should wait and see if a deal is made, and see what the executive branch proposes and have a thoughtful negotiation,” said freshman Rep. Dean PhillipsDean PhillipsThis week: House Democrats voting to hold Barr, Ross in contempt New CBO report fuels fight over minimum wage Unglamorous rules change helps a big bill pass MORE (D-Minn.), who’s planning to hold an infrastructure hearing in his swing district in the Minneapolis suburbs. “I don’t think disrupting the process right now would be beneficial.”

Democratic negotiators are also urging patience.

“I want to not just pass a bill out of the House, but I think it’s important to get it through the Senate and to the president for his signature,” Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who attended the infrastructure meeting with Trump, told The Hill.

“But if our Republican colleagues don’t want to find a way to work together, we should show the American people the package that we would offer as Democrats.”

If Democrats do decide to go it alone, progressive leaders say this should be the approach: Go big and go bold.

“I think we should take a vote on an infrastructure package that the whole caucus can support, and we should make that as broad as possible and as generous as possible, because I don’t think we should wait for the administration if it looks like they’re not going to support it,” Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalActivist: Exclusion of domestic workers from federal labor laws 'a legacy of slavery' How Trump suddenly brought Democrats together on a resolution condemning him House votes against striking Pelosi remarks from record MORE (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, told The Hill while walking into the Speaker’s office.

“Is that $2 trillion? Is it $1.5 trillion? I don’t know, but my intent would be to make it as big as possible because that’s what we need to get the caucus to support it, something that shows we are united as a caucus and that infrastructure investment into jobs is absolutely critical.”

Khanna, the other progressive leader, actually wants leadership to be even more aggressive and bring an infrastructure bill to the floor “as soon as possible” to stake out a negotiating position with Trump and also show voters that Democrats are not obsessed with probing the president and his administration.

“It shows we’re not just focused on investigations,” Khanna said. “Let’s put forward something we can pass. ... I’m for $2 trillion. If it’s a trillion, it’s a trillion.”