If Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Trump can’t strike an infrastructure deal, key Democrats say they should push their own partisan bill through the House ahead of the 2020 elections.
That strategy, backers argue, would demonstrate to voters that they’re making good on the campaign promises that won them the lower chamber last year — and remain focused on those bread-and-butter issues looking ahead.
It would also allow Democrats to shift the conversation away from the intense focus on the many investigations into Trump, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which they fear could alienate voters in crucial swing districts.
Why doesn't the House just pass a $2 trillion infrastructure bill with our pay-fors and then put the ball in the Senate and Trump's court?” asked Rep. Ro Khanna, a San Francisco Bay–area Democrat and a leading progressive in Congress.
“I think we have to pass something that's really going to convince people the problem isn't politicians. The problem isn't broken Washington. The problem is this president and the Senate,” Khanna added. “If we don't do that, if it's just rhetorical, then I feel that [voters] are just going to increase the cynicism and most people will blame the entire Congress.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he still intends to move a sweeping infrastructure package through his committee this year — even if talks with the White House break down.
Whether it gets a floor vote, he emphasized, is up to leadership. But he was quick to note that Democrats ran their successful 2018 campaign on a bare-bones message that featured just three line items: clean government, health care and infrastructure.
“One of the three key issues in us winning back the House was infrastructure,” said DeFazio, who attended the first new White House meeting on the issue on April 30. “I would certainly write a transportation bill.”
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), another member of the Transportation panel, is endorsing that idea enthusiastically.
“I have always thought we should simply be full speed ahead. Waiting for the goalposts to stop moving with this administration, I think, is a recipe for paralysis and inaction,” Huffman said.
The price tag — and the difficult task of finding money to offset those costs — should not discourage Democratic leaders from forging ahead, Huffman said. DeFazio backs a gas tax hike, while progressives are pushing for corporations that now pay zero taxes to fork over money for infrastructure.
“Having promised to do infrastructure, we can't be afraid of the pay-for and let that be an excuse for inaction,” Huffman said, advocating a plan of “at least” $2 trillion. “We’ve got a lot of need out there.”
DeFazio, however, questioned why Democrats would stick their necks out to come up with offsets for a package that was sure to go nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate. Some of those funding sources would likely be unpopular and could prove politically perilous to centrists who face tough elections next year.
“Probably the Republicans wouldn’t be very supportive,” he said, “If it's just going to be a one-house bill, I don't think there's a great desire to walk the plank on funding.”
The debate comes as many Republicans, particularly those in control of the Senate, are balking at the enormous $2 trillion price tag for infrastructure that Trump agreed to in talks with Democratic leaders earlier in the month. The GOP grumbling has led to widespread doubts about the fate of the negotiations.
Still, many Democrats are holding out hope that Trump, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) can reach a bipartisan agreement to address the nation’s aging roads, bridges, waterways and other projects.
The two sides shook hands on that $2 trillion figure a couple weeks ago at the White House and are aiming to meet again during the week of May 20 to negotiate the hard part: how exactly to pay for it all.
That’s why Pelosi isn’t tipping her hand about her next move if negotiations with Trump collapse. Other Democrats want to give Pelosi and Schumer space to get a deal rather than turn quickly to what Republicans would surely deride as a 2020 Democratic messaging bill.
“I think we should wait and see if a deal is made, and see what the executive branch proposes and have a thoughtful negotiation,” said freshman Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who’s planning to hold an infrastructure hearing in his swing district in the Minneapolis suburbs. “I don’t think disrupting the process right now would be beneficial.”
Democratic negotiators are also urging patience.
“I want to not just pass a bill out of the House, but I think it’s important to get it through the Senate and to the president for his signature,” Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who attended the infrastructure meeting with Trump, told The Hill.
“But if our Republican colleagues don’t want to find a way to work together, we should show the American people the package that we would offer as Democrats.”
If Democrats do decide to go it alone, progressive leaders say this should be the approach: Go big and go bold.
“I think we should take a vote on an infrastructure package that the whole caucus can support, and we should make that as broad as possible and as generous as possible, because I don’t think we should wait for the administration if it looks like they’re not going to support it,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, told The Hill while walking into the Speaker’s office.
“Is that $2 trillion? Is it $1.5 trillion? I don’t know, but my intent would be to make it as big as possible because that’s what we need to get the caucus to support it, something that shows we are united as a caucus and that infrastructure investment into jobs is absolutely critical.”
Khanna, the other progressive leader, actually wants leadership to be even more aggressive and bring an infrastructure bill to the floor “as soon as possible” to stake out a negotiating position with Trump and also show voters that Democrats are not obsessed with probing the president and his administration.
“It shows we’re not just focused on investigations,” Khanna said. “Let’s put forward something we can pass. ... I’m for $2 trillion. If it’s a trillion, it’s a trillion.”