Hopes for infrastructure deal with Trump rise if Dems win House
Democrats are vowing to fight tooth and nail to oppose President Trump’s agenda if they win back the House. But there is one area where they may try to work with the administration.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said an infrastructure and jobs package is a top priority for Democrats if they’re in the majority next year, and transportation is considered potential common ground between Trump and congressional Democrats.
Trump promised to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure during his 2016 presidential campaign, but efforts to craft comprehensive legislation hit roadblocks under the GOP-controlled Congress, where Republicans have long been skeptical of massive transportation spending. The latest proposal from Democrats carried a $1 trillion price tag.
Still, there is optimism in transportation circles that Trump will have better luck at getting a massive infrastructure package to land on his desk if Democrats control the House.
“Since Day One, I made it clear that I would be willing to work with President Trump and my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to deliver Americans with the infrastructure bill that we so desperately need,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), co-chairwoman of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, in a statement to The Hill.
“Democrats are serious about getting the job done, and that's why we developed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan to rebuild our nation,” she added. “We stand ready to work with Republicans if they're serious about making a meaningful investment in our infrastructure.”
But it may prove to be a difficult political environment for bipartisanship if Democrats are simultaneously fighting the administration with subpoenas, investigations and possibly even impeachment proceedings next year.
The window for cooperation could also be limited to 2019, after which election-year politics could complicate any bipartisan infrastructure efforts as both sides gear up for the 2020 presidential election.
“If people think the politics is crazy now, just wait until the 50-plus Democrats announce they’re running for president,” said Sean Joyce, the CEO of Atlas Crossing and a former GOP aide for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “The Democrats list infrastructure as a top priority in 2019, and it sounds nice saying ‘we want to play ball,’ but suiting up and getting on the field are wildly different.”
House Democrats earlier this year introduced their “For the People” agenda, which includes proposals to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, lower prescription drug costs and clean up the corruption in Washington -- three issues Trump ran on in 2016.
While a Democratic aide said the presidential overlap was unintentional, it nevertheless leaves the door open for bipartisanship next year.
The Democrats’ infrastructure plan would inject $1 trillion in federal funding directly into a wide range of transportation projects: roads, highways, bridges, railroads, airports, broadband, energy and water. Lawmakers estimate the plan could create as many as 16 million jobs.
A Democratic leadership aide emphasized that the goal is to have a bipartisan product with some GOP buy-in, regardless of whether there is a tense relationship between congressional Democrats and the White House. But the ball is ultimately in Trump’s court on whether he’s willing to work with Democrats, the aide said.
“He is the president of the United States, so we need his signature,” the aide said. “But the onus is going to be on him... Does he want to fulfill a campaign promise?”
While Trump never introduced infrastructure legislation, his administration released a framework that would leverage about $200 billion in federal dollars to create $1 trillion in infrastructure investment, with the private sector and local governments picking up the rest of the tab.
Bustos noted that Democrats were disappointed that the White House blueprint wasn’t bipartisan, and she said infrastructure efforts have largely been a “one-way conversation" thus far.
But Trump was reportedly skeptical of the public-private partnership model floated by his now-former economic adviser Gary Cohn. Instead, he told a group of Republicans during a meeting last fall that he preferred direct, massive spending -- the approach favored by Democrats.
"We've just gotta spend money on this," Trump said during the meeting, according to a recent Axios article.
Trump has welcomed the prospect of an eye-popping, $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Embracing a spending package with Democrats would allow him to score a major legislative victory before his reelection campaign picks up, even if it means signing a bill that more closely resembles funding mechanisms favored by Democrats.
The Highway Trust Fund is also set to run out of money in 2020, making it an issue that will require attention from the next Congress.
But even if Trump puts some serious muscle behind an infrastructure bill and has the support of House Democrats, the plan could still run into hurdles on Capitol Hill.
The proposal would need to come up with a pay-for that both sides can agree on, an issue that has long eluded Washington.
While Trump has expressed openness in the past to raising the federal gas tax, the idea has faced resistance in both parties. To reach the $1 trillion figure, an infrastructure bill would likely need a variety of offsets to cover the massive price tag.
“I think people can agree on the framework, but then it comes down to where is the money gonna come from,” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future.
Meanwhile, the GOP is sure to resist that level of spending, even if it is fully paid for. Even if Democrats win back control of both chambers, there would still need to be cooperation from Republicans in the Senate.
Most Republicans prefer transportation projects be funded through public-private partnerships, which they argue are far more efficient and effective than putting the government in charge.
GOP lawmakers will likely clash with Democrats on whether the package should protect wages and environmental laws.
But some transportation advocates say that Trump could give his party a lot of cover by putting his weight behind an infrastructure plan.
“If the president decides to take the driver’s seat and lead on infrastructure, it could be a game changer,” Joyce said. “Trump isn’t losing support from his base, so it's probably not a bad call for him to make a good faith effort to court Dems, offering a large carrot on infrastructure spending.”
“The refusal to even sit down at the table can make it difficult for them politically back home, especially in some of the urban districts with a larger share of mass transit needs,” he added.
It’s unclear, however, whether either side is going to be willing to compromise. And if so, by how much.
While Trump bills himself as a dealmaker, he has also vilified Pelosi and other top Democrats, comments that could hurt their working relationship.
And Democrats may be reluctant to hand Trump a major victory right before he runs for president again.
Many Senate and House Democrats are expected to make a bid for the White House in 2020, and may not be willing to work with a president who they see as toxic on the campaign trail.
Instead, they would rather conduct tough oversight of the Trump administration, making bipartisan a bit tougher when it comes to an infrastructure bill.
“If Pelosi is in charge, she’ll continue to exert her iron grip on the caucus,” Joyce said. “Good luck getting one hand to collaborate on one of the president’s campaign pledges while the other hand is issuing subpoenas.”