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Trump Cabinet members press Senate panel on infrastructure overhaul

Trump Cabinet members press Senate panel on infrastructure overhaul
© Greg Nash

A Senate panel on Wednesday heard five different Trump Cabinet members press hard on the need for an infrastructure overhaul. 

Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine ChaoDOJ declined to take up Chao ethics probe Parliamentarian strikes down Pelosi priority in aid package The Hill's Morning Report - Biden on COVID-19: Next year Americans will be 'better off' MORE was joined by four other Cabinet members at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, as Chao testified for the third time this month on the administration’s infrastructure proposal.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossFormer Trump officials find tough job market On The Money: Retail sales drop in latest sign of weakening economy | Fast-food workers strike for minimum wage | US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits MORE, Labor Secretary Alex AcostaAlex Alexander AcostaOn The Money: Trump slams relief bill, calls on Congress to increase stimulus money | Biden faces new critical deadlines after relief package | Labor rule allows restaurants to require broader tip pooling Labor rule allows restaurants to require broader tip pooling Federal litigator files complaint alleging Labor secretary abused his authority MORE, Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryRepublicans see Becerra as next target in confirmation wars OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Five things to know about Texas's strained electric grid | Biden honeymoon with green groups faces tests | Electric vehicles are poised to aid Biden in climate fight Five things to know about Texas's strained electric grid MORE and Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueSonny PerdueThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Georgia election day is finally here; Trump hopes Pence 'comes through for us' to overturn results Civil war between MAGA, GOP establishment could hand Dems total control Trump administration races to finish environmental rules, actions MORE also made the case for President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new tranche of endorsements DeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Lawmakers demand changes after National Guard troops at Capitol sickened from tainted food MORE’s rebuilding blueprint, which allocates $200 billion in federal seed money that the administration argues will lead to a $1.5 trillion overhaul. 

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But neither the administration nor lawmakers have identified a clear revenue stream for Trump’s plan, which seeks to incentivize both local and private investment.

Commerce Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate holds longest vote in history as Democrats scramble to save relief bill Biden helps broker Senate deal on unemployment benefits Democrats break COVID-19 impasse with deal on jobless benefits MORE (R-S.D.) said he expects some sort of legislation to move this year, but noted that there has been a struggle to identify how to pay for the plan.

“I think it’s realistic that something could happen that would constitute a down payment on a bigger, more robust bill,” Thune told reporters after the hearing.

“I think the key right now is whether or not we have sufficient resources to fund an infrastructure package.”

The question over how to pay for a sweeping infrastructure package has plagued lawmakers for years and has been one of the main issues overshadowing Trump’s push for the legislation as Democrats continue to dismiss the $200 billion pitch.

“So how are we going to pay for it?” committee ranking member Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Divided House on full display Florida Democrats mired in division, debt ahead of 2022 Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives MORE (D-Fla.) asked during the hearing.

“We can’t toll our way out of it,” he added in an apparent reference to the administration’s suggestion to lift a ban on states’ ability to collect tolls on interstates.

But the Cabinet secretaries touted various aspects of Trump’s plan that would help their respective departments.

Acosta, for example, emphasized the push for workforce advancement in the framework, which calls to extend the eligibility for Pell Grants, widen the practice of apprenticeships and alter trade licensing requirements.

“As we build infrastructure, we must also ensure that we think about the American workforce that will build this infrastructure and that ultimately benefits from these efforts,” Acosta told the committee.

Perry praised the plan for pushing to streamline the permit process and for providing state and local governments with “flexibility” on infrastructure projects.

“First and foremost, the president’s plan, it embraces America’s time-honored federalist tradition,” Perry said.

Trump’s rebuilding proposal says a quarter of appropriations would go toward rural projects in the form of block grants to states so governors may decide where to invest.

“The president’s plan gives the nation’s governors the power and the flexibility to prioritize infrastructure projects that would benefit their respective states,” said Perry.

Perdue plugged the administration’s emphasis on rural infrastructure and highlighted the need to expand rural broadband.

“Let’s just get it done for the American people because it’s needed in order for American producers and agriculture to remain competitive,” Perdue said. “This is a very important issue.” 

But the administration’s push has hit a wall in Congress, as House leadership appears reluctant to take up a sweeping infrastructure bill and Republican lawmakers in both chambers openly question the likelihood of passing a public works overhaul this year.

Thune on Wednesday conceded that a rebuilding effort could come in the form of several bills, a suggestion Speaker Ryan (R-Wis.) made last week about infrastructure legislation in the House.

“I think because of the multiple committees of jurisdiction it inevitably probably will get spread out a little bit,” Thune told reporters. “It could be individual bills that get marked up, reported and then married up on the floor."