Transportation

Trump's pursuit of infrastructure deal hits GOP roadblock

President Trump faces stiff opposition from Republicans in his desire for a massive infrastructure package.

GOP lawmakers say the president's grand proposal for a $2 trillion deal is too ambitious and warn that they will oppose any measure that adds to the deficit.

Many Republicans also say they are against raising taxes to pay for an infrastructure initiative, a stance that would make it extremely difficult to find money to finance a package even half the size of Trump's desired amount.

Congressional Republicans say they are worried about passing a reprise of former President Obama's 2009 fiscal stimulus, which was devoted to "shovel ready" infrastructure projects and "green" energy production.

That legislation added more than $800 billion to the debt and later became a focal point of GOP charges that Obama had blown up the deficit.

"If we're going to do infrastructure, I think we ought to pay for it. I don't think we ought to put it on the debt," said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate GOP leader.

But he also noted "there's never been much appetite on either side up here, Democrat or Republican, for" raising the gas tax, a key revenue raiser for highway projects.

"I think $2 trillion is really ambitious. If you do a 35-cent increase in the gas tax, for example, indexed for inflation, it gets you only half a trillion [dollars]," Thune said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also sounded skeptical.

"How do you pay for it? That's the biggest question - that's the hardest part," he told The Hill.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Congress has a much better chance of passing legislation to lower prescription drug prices than advancing an infrastructure package.

"You would have to have a gas tax to do it, and we're not for a gas tax," Meadows, who speaks regularly to Trump, told The Hill on Thursday. "I mean, $1 trillion you could maybe do; $2 trillion, there is no way to get the money other than raising taxes and there is not an appetite for an increase in taxes by Republicans in the House or the Senate."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Senate GOP leadership team, said, "I don't think raising the gas on working men and women is a good idea - it's pretty regressive."

Other Republicans, such as Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.), are ruling out any tax increases to pay for an infrastructure package.

"No, I wouldn't raise taxes," he said, acknowledging that finding a way to pay for infrastructure is the biggest challenge to any prospective deal.

"That's going to be the heaviest lift of all of this, is figuring out a way here from a fiscal viewpoint making this affordable on our current balance sheet," he said.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said she opposes increasing the gas tax and called it "a regressive tax."  

When asked how to pay for infrastructure in lieu of tax increases, GOP lawmakers say they need more time to study the issue.

Fischer said she hasn't traditionally favored passing a comprehensive infrastructure package and says it's "more realistic" to pass separate bills funding roads, rail, ports, airports, broadband internet, and power transmission. 

Some GOP lawmakers have since raised concerns that funding a wide array of projects ranging from roads to railroads to airports, broadband and power grids, could deplete money available for the upcoming Highway Trust Fund reauthorization, which they want to pass this year.

"The other problem that's going to come up is we're bumping up against highway reauthorization," said Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.). "That's going to take a lot of dollars. The Highway Trust Fund is depleted ... it's going to be very difficult to fund that."

Many Republicans were caught off guard by Tuesday's announcement that Democratic leaders reached a deal with Trump to pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure package. GOP lawmakers were not invited to the White House meeting. 

Republicans pushed back immediately on some of the core elements that emerged from that meeting, particularly the price tag and that the federal government would kick in the lion's share of funding.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), a candidate for the Senate in 2020, told The Hill that "$2 trillion is a lot of money."

"I want to keep an open mind, because there could be a pay-for I can vote for, but I don't know what it would be at $2 trillion. That's a lot of money. It's a big number," he said. "And when you try to do things around here that are too big, they just don't happen."

The Trump administration previously floated a plan whereby the federal government would fund only 20 percent of the investment and give the private sector incentives to come up with the rest.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) on Tuesday said Trump came closer to the Democratic position of having the government pay for as much as 80 percent.

"We agreed to $2 trillion and the president was happy to push up the number a little bit," Schumer told reporters after the meeting.

Schumer also noted that Trump didn't rule out raising taxes to pay for the package.

Democratic leaders said they discussed with the president expanded broadband for rural areas and inner cities, along with more efficient power grids.

Schumer said Trump "agreed the old 20-80 [federal-private split in funding] was much too low" and that "he doesn't like these private-public partnerships."

House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (La.), however, defended private-public partnerships.

"There are public-private partnerships that have been successful. You know, we ought to look at every option to see if those kind of partnerships help us build more roads and help meet the needs of communities," he said. "Ultimately this should be driven by local communities and they need to have skin in the game, too."

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said he also favors limiting the federal contribution to 20 percent.

"My guess is it's probably not going to go very far," Johnson said of the sketched-out $2 trillion proposal.

He said the president "has got to start getting support from Republicans as well."

Trump and Democratic leaders plan to meet in another three weeks to discuss how to pay for their infrastructure plan.

Republican lawmakers have floated various ideas to fund infrastructure without raising taxes.

McCarthy, the House Republican leader, suggested selling government lands. 

"Well, you know there's a bill out there that has Democrats and Republicans on it, the GAIIN Act, sell the government excess property so that's a way and then it goes to the hundred poorest districts, so that's a good place to start," he said.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the administration could pay for infrastructure by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and other combat zones.

"We spend about $50 billion a year in Afghanistan. I think we could bring some of that home and use it," he said. "Where they find $2 trillion is beyond me unless they end some of the wars we're involved with."

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