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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 TrumpDonald TrumpGOP-led Maricopa County board decries election recount a 'sham' Analysis: Arpaio immigration patrol lawsuit to cost Arizona county at least 2 million Conservatives launch 'anti-cancel culture' advocacy organization MORE’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 BarrassoThe 'frills' of Biden's infrastructure plan are real needs Sunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans Biden says he and GOP both 'sincere about' seeking infrastructure compromise 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 Trump’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 McConnellSenators shed masks after CDC lifts mandate Trump signals he's ready to get back in the game Manchin, Murkowski call for bipartisan Voting Rights Act reauthorization 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 Davis RyanBiden's relationship with top House Republican is frosty The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Budowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only 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 AmodeiNorth Las Vegas mayor running for Nevada governor Marjorie Taylor Greene's delay tactics frustrate GOP Capitol Police head cites Biden speech threat for keeping security high 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 Patrick BradyLawmakers bicker over how to go after tax cheats GAO report finds maternal mortality rates higher in rural, underserved areas Republicans attack Biden agenda after disappointing jobs report 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 GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesGOP lawmaker points to Colonial Pipeline as infrastructure vulnerability Gas shortages spread to more states Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill 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 WoodallWilliam (Rob) Robert WoodallMcCarthy guarantees GOP will take back House in 2022 Rundown of the House seats Democrats, GOP flipped on Election Day Bustos won't seek to chair DCCC again in wake of 2020 results 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 InhofeInhofe tells EPA nominee he'll talk to her 'daddy' if she does not 'behave' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate nixes Trump rule limiting methane regulation | Senate confirms EPA chief: Biden's climate goals are 'an opportunity to lead' | Fine-particle pollution disproportionately hurts people of color: research EPA chief: Biden's climate goals are 'an opportunity to lead' 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 BarlettaEx-GOP Rep. Lou Barletta launches bid for Pennsylvania governor Republicans vie for Trump's mantle in Pa. Senate primary Former Trump officials eye bids for political office 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.