Heading into a potentially divisive—even toxic—term, one area where both parties in Congress and President-elect Donald Trump seemed able to work together was on an infrastructure package.
Trump had talked repeatedly on the trail about rebuilding roads, bridges, airports, and transit, eventually working up to a $1 trillion package. Democrats indicated after the election that they’d be eager to get a bill off the ground, and even some conservatives—usually loath to move major spending packages—seemed persuaded.
Now, that bipartisan promise may be slipping down the calendar as the realities of governing come into focus. At his year-end news conference, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said only that “it will be interesting” to see how the package comes together, warning, “I hope we avoid a trillion-dollar stimulus.”
Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao have downplayed the proposal, with Chao not even mentioning it in a questionnaire to the Senate Commerce Committee, instead focusing on streamlining project approval.
Meanwhile, Democrats still see it as a way to build some bipartisan goodwill and deliver much-needed transportation dollars. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told ABC News’ Powerhouse Politics podcast in December that a trillion-dollar package “sounded good to me.”
A Schumer aide said that the minority leader had spoken to Trump about the proposal, adding that the White House team “seems anxious to move forward, but there is a lot less enthusiasm coming from Republicans on the Hill.”
Part of that apathy simply reflects the calendar: The early part of the year is expected to be jammed with moving nominations, approving a spending bill, and undoing Obama-era regulations. Repealing the Affordable Care Act is the GOP’s top priority, and many Republicans are also eager to push quickly on overhauling the tax code.
Priebus declined to discuss an infrastructure package—or “stimulus”—on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show last month, saying the priorities for the first nine months were Obamacare, tax reform, and reconciliation.
“We’re working around the clock to make sure that big changes, bold changes happen quickly,” he said. As for the “stimulus,” Priebus said, “I would love to … get into the details with you, but we’re not going to do that today.”
Even Trump himself told The New York Times in November that infrastructure was “an important factor,” but “not the core” of his agenda. But in the same interview, he reflected another reason why the plan is no slam dunk.
“That’s not a very Republican thing—I didn’t even know that, frankly,” he said.
Details on how an infrastructure plan might work have been scarce. An October paper by Trump advisers described tax credits as a way to leverage private investments in infrastructure, although that strategy would likely only work for money-making projects, not already-built highways in need of repair. Democrats have already balked at the proposal.
Incoming White House adviser Steohen Bannon, meanwhile, hinted at a bolder package in November, telling The Hollywood Reporter that “we’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.” That strategy would be sure to lose conservatives; Ryan already said in September that a massive stimulus was “not in the Better Way agenda,” and Rep. Raul Labrador said after the election that the bill “has to be paid for” or Republicans would vote against it.
A new bill would also come not long after Congress had to strive to fill depleted coffers to cover a five-year transportation reauthorization normally funded by the dwindling gas tax. State transportation agencies are pushing for any new bill to contain consistent funding that would supplement that bill and flow through traditional formulas that states use for road and transit repair.
Jim Tymon, the director of policy and management at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said the finance talk was encouraging, but “not a perfect fit for all the types of projects out there,” especially in states that forbid debt financing for public infrastructure or projects that might not return any revenue.
“Even the most conservative Republicans out there accept there is a federal responsibility to pay for this, but the sticking point is how to pay for it,” Tymon said. “Maybe in tax reform, some savings can be used as an offset. We just need some money sent to states and transit agencies … for projects they already have on the shelf.”
An aide for House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster said the chairman was aware of that tension and had discussed “making smart investments in infrastructure” with both leadership and Trump’s team. But with the committee’s roster not even set, the aide said it was too early to discuss substantive proposals.
That means the bill could be a long time coming, and could potentially slip as the fiscal challenges—and partisan rancor—become more defined. But the talk of infrastructure on the trail, from a Republican candidate, has excited the lobbying community, which will no doubt keep pressure on the Hill to get a bill done.
“Nobody in the infrastructure community is going to hold off because they don’t hear an adviser mention it in an interview,” said Robyn Boerstling, who works on infrastructure for the National Association of Manufacturers. “Everybody has a list of projects that will help the economy, support businesses in their districts, and industries. This is a real opportunity to break the ice and try to accomplish what we haven’t been able to do, which is meet these unmet needs.”