WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump’s chief promise during the campaign was a simple one: He would make America great again. Specifically, he would bring back jobs and rebuild roads, bridges and our dilapidated, internationally embarrassing airports. It was a theme he returned to last week during his inaugural address.
“We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor,” he promised. “We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.”
But on Monday night, during a closed-door meeting at the White House, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) delivered Trump a blunt piece of advice: If he wants that infrastructure package, he’s going to have to talk his own party into it.
“I told him repeatedly that if you want to do a bill like this, you’re going to have to tell a lot of your Republicans, particularly on the right wing, that they’re not going to get their way,” Schumer said at a press conference Tuesday. “And he acknowledged that. So we’ll see.”
He’s got a long way to go. Listening to press conferences and speeches given by Republican leaders in the House and Senate since the election, you could be forgiven for not knowing that a massive infrastructure package was a central part of the presidential campaign. The silence on Capitol Hill is deafening.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said on Tuesday that Republicans are open to an “expansive” package, but Schumer dismissed the suggestion.
“Sounds to me like he has a million caveats,” Schumer said.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R- Pa.), who chairs the House Transportation Committee, has said that the infrastructure package won’t come up in the first hundred days, and neither Ryan nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), nor members of their respective leadership teams, have seemed eager to talk about it publicly.
The problem, of course, is the cost. Republicans don’t like spending money on non-defense priorities if it can be avoided. McConnell, in particular, is balking at Trump’s infrastructure ambitions.
“I don’t think we ought to borrow almost a trillion dollars and plus up a bunch of federal accounts, incur a lot of additional debt and don’t build any projects to speak of,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “What we’ll get is a replication of the Obama stimulus package in 2009.”
Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon ― who has said the administration is going to push forward with a trillion-dollar infrastructure package and lock in the GOP’s popularity for half a century ― predicted this moment.
“The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan,” Bannon told The Hollywood Reporter shortly after the election.
“There’s a lot to do,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) when The Huffington Post asked about the silence on highways. “Certainly we’re going to start with the personnel business, and the House doesn’t have to deal with those issues.”
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said it’s not a matter of a lack of interest in rebuilding infrastructure. Rather, he said, it’s an issue of timing.
“I think it is a top priority. For the Senate side, it’s a little bit of sequencing. In other words, we wanna get as much done as soon as we can,” Hoeven said. “So how do you have to order that? Well, you’ve got the nominations we’ve gotta go after. We’re talking about regulatory relief ― I think you’re going to see we’re really going to be pushing that right up front. Your budget reconciliation sets up your Obamacare repeal-and-replace, so that’s right at the front. Your tax package is really going to work into your infrastructure package.”
In other words, Republicans want first to pass a tax measure that would allow corporations to repatriate ― that is, bring back into the country ― profits they’ve been stashing overseas. Those profits would be taxed at a favorable rate, but the one-time windfall would be used, theoretically, to pay for the infrastructure bill.
“It’s an absolute priority, but I think since the greatest likelihood is it’s funded out of repatriation, it has to follow on the tax package, so I think that’s the reason for the timing,” Hoeven said. “I think not only is it a priority for the president, it’s a priority for the Congress, the House and the Senate. But I think it follows on the tax package.”
For Shuster, the House transportation chairman, finding a way to pay for the infrastructure work is key. Bannon, meanwhile, has argued that Republicans should take advantage of historically low interest rates and simply borrow the money, much like a homeowner would do when fixing up a house.
“With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything,” Bannon told THR in November. “Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
“We think the first 100 days is going to be about tax reform and how you pay for all the stuff he was talking about doing,” Shuster told HuffPost.
“Once we sort of figure out the pay-fors, then we figure it’s the second 100 days that we put together an infrastructure package,” he went on ― suggesting that infrastructure efforts might be pushed to the summer.
Asked if the infrastructure package should be a trillion dollars, Shuster said: “That’s what [Trump] wants... The first hundred days is going to be ‘Where’s the money?’ Second 100 days, that’s going to be policy and let’s get moving.”
It would be hard to raise a trillion dollars through repatriation alone, given that companies have less than $3 trillion stashed offshore.
Democrats, meanwhile, are concerned that congressional Republicans will eventually buckle to pressure and back an infrastructure bill, but that they’ll tuck in so many riders ― particularly on prevailing wage rates and union labor ― that Democrats won’t be able to support it. Schumer said Trump has been warned of that move, too.
“I was told yesterday by some labor leaders that were there ― they said we need to maintain protections for labor so these are good-paying jobs,” Schumer said. “And he didn’t oppose it.”
“Many of us believe on our side that infrastructure should be a job creation program,” Schumer said Tuesday. “There has been deficit spending on infrastructure since Henry Clay” ― a hero of McConnell’s ― “and since Franklin D. Roosevelt. It’s nothing new.”
He added that “there’s unanimity on our side we’re not going to cut the basic programs that help average people... to do it.”
Matt Fuller contributed reporting.