GOP signals infrastructure bill must wait
The timing and fate of President Trump’s infrastructure plan may depend on whether the GOP enacts major tax reform — a task that could prove challenging amid the struggle to pass a healthcare bill.
Republicans are signaling that a massive rebuilding package, which has long been one of Trump’s top priorities, will most likely have to wait on the sidelines until lawmakers overhaul the tax code.
But with that process likely to be just as time-consuming and daunting as healthcare, infrastructure could be pushed to the back burner.
“I’d like to see infrastructure get done,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the Senate’s No. 3 Republican and chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told reporters Wednesday. “But I’ve always said, that in terms of how things are sequenced, it’s more likely that they would do tax reform first. And that might push infrastructure into sometime next year.”
Congressional Republicans have been weighing their next legislative steps after an effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare stalled in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that the GOP would now be moving on “to comprehensive tax reform and to infrastructure,” though he is still pushing toward a healthcare vote next week.
But if the GOP does decide to pivot to tax reform or infrastructure, they face a big obstacle: not having legislation for either.
Trump released a one-page outline on tax reform earlier this year, while House Republicans released a blueprint in June 2016 as part of Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) “Better Way” agenda.
The White House seems to be further along on a $1 trillion infrastructure proposal, which it is expected to be released this fall. The administration laid out some details about Trump’s vision for the plan in his budget request and dropped more clues about the bill during an “Infrastructure Week” initiative at the White House.
Trump’s push to upgrade U.S. roads, bridges and other public works has also been viewed as one potential area that could attract Democratic support.
But even with bipartisan interest and steady progress on the infrastructure proposal, there seems to be growing consensus — even among transportation advocates in Congress — that tax reform will come first.
Tax reform has long been considered a unifying issue for the GOP, whereas massive spending on infrastructure has typically given fiscal conservatives heartburn.
“You know I love infrastructure … but I think we have to do tax reform,” Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), chairwoman of the Commerce subcommittee on surface transportation, told The Hill. “I hear that from Nebraskans as something that has to be done. We’ve talked about forever, regulations and tax reform.”
Other Republicans have argued that they have to put infrastructure on hold because tax reform will pave the way for offsets that could pay for the massive rebuilding program.
Some of the potential funding options that have been floated include charging fees based on the number of miles a vehicle travels and using the tax revenue from corporate earnings stored overseas when it returns to the U.S.
“[Infrastructure] is obviously one of the things teed up and possible to move on, but we’ve also got a tax bill out there, too,” said Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. “We need that tax bill before we do infrastructure, because some of the pay-fors are in that.”
But tax reform is a heavy lift. GOP lawmakers and the White House are divided on some of the elements of tax reform, such as whether a bill should be revenue-neutral or include a tax on imports.
Another hurdle is that Republicans want to pass tax legislation through a process known as reconciliation so that the bill doesn’t need any support from Democrats. But to use reconciliation, Congress first has to agree on a budget resolution, and some conservative lawmakers have already expressed reservations about the measure the House Budget Committee released Tuesday.
There is no guarantee that a fractured GOP conference can muscle tax reform over the finish line in Congress, raising questions about where that leaves infrastructure.
The clock is also ticking for lawmakers. The healthcare struggles have already eaten into their time, while there are only 65 legislative days scheduled after the August recess.
Putting off work on an infrastructure proposal until next year could move it into dangerous territory, as it can be trickier to enact major legislation in an election year.
That’s why some Republican lawmakers would prefer to turn to a bipartisan rebuilding package next, which they believe would give the GOP their best shot at a desperately needed legislative victory before the midterm elections.
“I would love for us to move onto infrastructure,” said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) “I think it could be an area where it’d be pretty difficult for Democrats not to work together with us. I think that’s exactly what we need right now.”
And another GOP lawmaker said delivering on a massive infrastructure package would resonate more strongly with their constituents back home.
“I have a preference for infrastructure,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) “It’s more bipartisan, and it’s something that the public wants more. I’m sure they want the tax stuff to be addressed, but not as much.”
Naomi Jagoda contributed.