Tuesday’s infrastructure meeting between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats was more positive and constructive than anyone expected — but there are still good reasons for skepticism on the two sides’ ability to accomplish a $2 trillion infrastructure package. Here are seven:
1) No one knows where the money will come from
This question has stymied big infrastructure hopes for decades, even as the nation’s backlog of unrepaired roads, rails, airports and other needs have grown. Congress hasn’t found any new way to pay for infrastructure since 1993, the last time it increased the the 18 cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax, even as inflation eats away at that levy’s spending power.
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Signs were few Tuesday that today’s legislators are any more ready to raise the gas tax, or embrace some other new pot of federal dollars to pay for a big plan.
On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that he would not even consider raising the gas tax unless Republicans would consider rolling back some of their 2017 tax code overhaul — an idea GOP lawmakers assail as a “nonstarter.” And shortly after Tuesday’s meeting, Schumer appeared with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to say that it’s up to Trump to come up with funding solutions.
“The ball is in the president’s court to come up with pay-fors,” Schumer said after the meeting. “We told him unless he is willing to come up with the pay-fors for this large package, it will never get done.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) piled on: “Now, it is up to President Trump to work with us by identifying new revenue to support that investment,” he said in a statement.
But Republicans had other ideas. Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said that “obviously, Speaker Pelosi didn’t go … to the meeting with any pay-fors today. So at some point they’re going to have to show how they would pay for it … with no new taxes.”
House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) insists that Republicans can get the political cover they would need to support a funding plan — if the president and Democrats “step outside together” and announce they’re supporting one.
2) Neither side can agree on their own message
After Schumer called for a partial repeal of the 2017 GOP tax cuts, DeFazio tried to walk back that suggestion, calling it a “talking point for 2020” and “not a realistic proposal.”
And on the GOP side, Republican lawmakers Tuesday made it clear that Trump didn’t necessarily speak for them when it comes to endorsing a $2 trillion price tag.
The top House Republican with jurisdiction over infrastructure — Transportation Committee ranking member Sam Graves of Missouri — said a $2 trillion infrastructure plan wasn‘t realistic. Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota called it “a very, very big number and a big tax increase“ and expressed skepticism that the talks between Trump and Democrats could “yield any kind of proposal that we could actually take a look at.” Finance Committee member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said, “Everybody is for an infrastructure bill … You have the usual monetary suspects, none of which are popular. So I don’t know.“
3) The plan is already too big
It took dozens of short-term extensions and a large array of budget gimmicks for Congress to reauthorize funding for roads, transit and bridges the last time a five-year, $305 billion transportation bill came before lawmakers in 2015, a feat they will have to repeat in the next 17 months before that legislation expires. Even to maintain the status quo, lawmakers will have to find additional money somewhere because of the continued erosion of the buying power of the federal gasoline tax.
Add to that all the other types of infrastructure needs that Trump and the Democrats want added — from wastewater treatment, rural broadband, green energy, the electrical grid to schools, housing and possibly even veterans hospitals — and you have a package trying to be all things to all people. That may be more sprawling ambition than a divided Congress can handle.
4) Democrats and Republicans will be uneasy partners
A few short hours after returning jubilant from the White House, Schumer was back on the Senate floor railing about what he called the Trump campaign’s support for Russian efforts to attack U.S. democracy and the president’s “dishonesty and interference with the federal investigation.”
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Schumer noted that Trump hadn’t reiterated his previous assertion that he couldn’t work with Democrats as long as investigations continue, but it remains to be seen whether he decides to try using infrastructure as leverage to shake off Democratic oversight. And Tuesday’s meeting came just a day after Trump and his family sued Deutsche Bank and and Capital One to block Democrats from obtaining his financial records.
5) Trump is unpredictable
Last year, Trump called for gun control measures after a mass shooting killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., only to walk it back days later. In 2017 he, Schumer and Pelosi hashed out the rough outlines of a potential deal on immigration and border security, only for Trump to quash it the next day, setting up many months of squabbling that eventually led to the longest government shutdown of all time.
With no Republican lawmakers in the room on Tuesday to hold Trump to GOP orthodoxy, the president was free to indulge in big talk without the reality check of his own party’s positions on infrastructure spending. Will this be a repeat?
6) The calendar is working against them
This year’s August recess is the clear dividing line: Any legislation that will get done in this Congress needs to be dispensed with in its first seven months. Otherwise it’s too close to the 2020 election and difficult votes on things like tax increases and big spending bills will probably be deemed too risky.
Getting bipartisan agreement — and clearing the 60-vote threshold in the Republican-controlled Senate — on a $2 trillion spending bonanza in just a few short months may be too ambitious.
7) It may not be $2 trillion, ultimately
When Trump rolled out his last $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan a little more than a year ago, it actually called for only $200 billion in federal dollars over a decade — money the White House said would be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget.
The balance of the eye-popping figure would have come from a variety of sources, including state and local governments. But the White House also estimated that a huge chunk of the money would come from private companies induced to put up their cash through targeted federal spending and relaxed regulations on projects.
Trump has disavowed that plan, but it’s a long road from $200 billion to $2 trillion in direct public investment. Ultimately, whatever plan gets produced this time may not actually amount to $2 trillion in federal spending.