Democrats remain skeptical of Trump’s rebuilding plan

Greg Nash

Democrats on Thursday said they remain skeptical of President Trump’s infrastructure plan even after Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao defended the overhaul before a key Senate panel.

In her first congressional testimony since the White House’s infrastructure rollout last month, Chao told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that “every dollar counts” when it comes to addressing the nation’s infrastructure needs.

“By incentivizing new investment on infrastructure, eliminating overly burdensome regulations, providing support for rural America and streamlining the permitting process, the department is helping to improve our quality of life and build a better future for all Americans,” Chao told the panel of lawmakers.

But lawmakers — despite agreeing any infrastructure bill will need bipartisan support — are split over how building plans would be funded, with Democrats saying the White House blueprint doesn’t provide a sufficient amount of federal funds.

During Chao’s testimony, Democrats continued to criticize the plan for repurposing other transportation funds and questioned its strategy of using a $200 billion federal commitment to generate a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package.

“I was surprised when I finally saw that the administration’s plan devoted 15 pages to permitting, while the word ‘pay-for’ failed to appear even once. Even once,” ranking Environment and Public Works Committee member Tom Carper (D-Del.) said during the hearing. “Maybe I missed it, but I don’t think so.”

Lawmakers from both parties had questioned how an infrastructure overhaul would be funded in the months leading up to the Trump administration’s proposal release. But the long-awaited unveiling of the White House plan left Democrats disappointed.

Democrats say the plan pushes the financial responsibility for infrastructure projects onto the states and skirts the federal government’s historic role in rebuilding.

“Maybe it’s like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. It did work 2,000 years ago, but I just don’t think it’s going to work here,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said of the proposal’s emphasis on financing from state and local governments, referring to a story in the Bible.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in an exchange with Chao suggested the administration’s infrastructure strategy may be “moving chairs around on the deck of our infrastructure Titanic,” arguing the plan would cut certain transportation funds from the department’s budget to be repurposed for a public works overhaul.

“It appears to me we’re not making the type of commitment we’re pretending to make,” Merkley told Chao, who rejected the senator’s description.

“I think there’s a disagreement about the purpose and use of federal funding,” Chao told Merkley. “If you look at 2017, it’s actually not a cut. 2018 went up, and therefore that’s how you consider it a cut,” she added, referring to the budgets for those years. {mosads}

The White House believes that federal investment will spur revenue from the private sector. That funding, in addition to money from states and local municipalities through a match incentive program, would produce the $1.5 trillion package, according to the Trump administration.

Chao on Thursday maintained her department’s commitment to working with Congress on an infrastructure package, but Democrats were not convinced that the current proposal could achieve the administration’s stated investment goal.

“I don’t understand how we’re going to get to $1.5 trillion. I don’t understand the $200 billion because I think it’s recycled money, so we’re not really putting any more up,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told the Transportation secretary.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) echoed Cardin’s concerns, describing the $200 billion of federal investment as a “hallucination” without a revenue stream for the package.

“Look, we’re talking about a $200 billion plan which many of us thinks is already too small to start with.” Van Hollen told Chao.

“The leverage assumptions, many of us think, are way off. But even that $200 billion is a hallucination until we have a real funding source.”

Still, Van Hollen noted lawmakers’ historic bipartisan agreement over the need to address America’s crumbling roads, bridges, transit systems, airports and other public works. The disagreements continue over how to fund the overhaul, which Democrats argue requires a higher direct federal investment.

“We’re going to need more than $200 billion to be able to move forward,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) told Chao.

Tags Ben Cardin Chris Van Hollen Donald Trump Ed Markey Elaine Chao Elaine Chao funding Infrastructure Jeff Merkley Tammy Duckworth Tom Carper Trump infrastructure plan

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