Reality has set in during the three weeks since President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders agreed to work together on a $2 trillion package to invest in roads, bridges and broadband.
Republican leaders in Congress have shown little enthusiasm for the price tag, and even less for the idea of raising the federal fuel tax to help pay for upgrading the nation’s infrastructure. Trump himself has suggested that Democrats are somehow setting a trap to get him to go along with a tax increase.
Trump and Democratic lawmakers will meet at the White House on Wednesday for Round 2 of their infrastructure talks.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said after their last White House meeting in late April that there was a consensus on one aspect of infrastructure: The agreement would be big and bold. But funding is a different matter. Democrats emerged saying they would return to hear Trump’s suggestions on how to pay for infrastructure.
But Trump expressed wariness in a Fox News interview that aired Sunday, saying he thought the White House was “being played by the Democrats a little bit. You know, I think what they want me to do is say, ‘Well, what we’ll do is raise taxes,’ and we’ll do this and this and this, and then they’ll have a news conference, see, ‘Trump wants to raise taxes.'”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dismissed the potential for a sweeping plan or for raising the gas tax at a recent Senate GOP lunch with Vice President Mike Pence, according to those familiar with the meeting.
And House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said that it was unrealistic to place the funding decision with the president. Democrats will need to make suggestions, too.
“You don’t ask the president, ‘Show me how to pay for it,'” Scalise said. “The president doesn’t pass the bill that pays for it. Ultimately, it has got to go through the House and Senate. We, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, have to come to an agreement, working with the White House, on how to pay for it. Those negotiations haven’t really started in earnest.”
The White House released a letter Tuesday night that Trump sent Pelosi and Schumer in advance of the meeting letting them know his preference for Congress taking up the proposed U.S. trade deal with Mexico and Canada before other issues.
“Once Congress has passed USMCA, we should turn our attention to a bipartisan infrastructure package,” Trump said.
Trump also requested that Pelosi and Schumer provide more specifics about how much they would like to dedicate to the various priorities they want an infrastructure bill to cover, such as airports, ports and local wastewater systems.
“Your caucus has expressed a wide-range of priorities, and it is unclear which ones have your support,” he said.
Trump also complained that he had hoped to work out the priorities following a meeting in late April at the White House, “but you cancelled a scheduled meeting of our teams, preventing them from advancing our discussions. Nevertheless, I remain committed to passing an infrastructure bill.”
Shortly after the release of Trump’s letter, Pelosi and Schumer issued their own statement, promising to continue “to insist on our principles: that any plan we support be big, bold and bipartisan; that it be comprehensive, future-focused, green and resilient; and that it be a jobs and ownership-boost with strong Buy America, labor, and women, veteran and minority-owned business protections.”
Business and trade groups have been meeting with White House officials to emphasize the importance of shoring up the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road improvements and transit systems. Federal fuel taxes supply most of the money that goes into the trust fund, but the purchasing power of the gas tax has declined as vehicles have become more fuel efficient.
Some 30 states have enacted fuel tax increases to raise money for local roads and bridges over the past six years, but Congress has not approved a fuel tax increase since 1993. It now stands at 18.3 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.3 cents a gallon for diesel.
The advocacy groups are trying to make the case that state politicians supportive of gas tax increases have not been punished at the ballot box.
“The political playbook has changed. People will vote for infrastructure even if it means new user fees,” said Linda Bauer Darr, president & CEO of the American Council of Engineering Companies.
However, the White House has been reluctant to provide any details of what the president will support.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., introduced a bill Tuesday that would raise the fuels tax by 5 cents a year over five years and allow it to rise at the rate of inflation thereafter. It also would establish that Congress intends to replace the fuel tax with a more equitable, stable source of funding within 10 years. Blumenauer supports taxing vehicles — including electric ones — based on miles traveled.
“It is past time that we get real about funding our infrastructure needs,” Blumenauer said. “We can’t afford inaction any longer.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and the American Trucking Associations voiced support for Blumenauer’s bill. That’s a rare mix of support on a major issue before Congress.
But some conservative groups are urging Congress to resist any gas tax increases. The Charles Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity said lawmakers should streamline the permitting process for construction on highways and other infrastructure, a move that could alienate many Democratic lawmakers.
“Congress has money to improve roads and bridges. They just need to spend it smarter,” said Russ Latino, a vice president at Americans for Prosperity.