President Trump donated $100,000—his fourth-quarter salary from last year—to the Transportation Department this week to help boost infrastructure renovation.
But Republican leaders on Capitol Hill aren’t rejoicing, choosing instead to send a less-than-subtle message to the White House: That’s not going to cut it.
The blowback comes after the White House released its infrastructure proposal, one of the most heavily anticipated policy initiatives from the Trump administration to date. The White House proposed $200 billion in federal funds over 10 years, all drawn from savings rather than new revenue.
“The fact that we’re this far into the [infrastructure process] without a revenue stream is troublesome,” Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of GOP leadership, told National Journal.
Funding is only one of a laundry list of Republican complaints about the proposal. Blunt said lawmakers can’t craft legislation without more details from the White House. Sen. John Cornyn, the top deputy to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said he plans to move ahead at the outset with piecemeal bills, rather than a package. But federal money appears to be the lowest-hanging fruit for critics.
“The president put a proposal out there, but obviously the biggest question is how do you pay for it,” Cornyn told National Journal. “The money’s got to come from somewhere.”
The White House has a simple answer to that dilemma: Lawmakers need to follow through on administration calls to pare down spending.
“The way it’s currently envisioned is that we would pay for the $200 billion out of savings from other areas of the federal budget,” a senior administration official told reporters on a recent conference call. “There are some reductions in things like transit funding and TIGER grants, and things where the administration thinks that infrastructure funds haven’t been spent efficaciously. And so, therefore, we want to do it in a better, more focused way.”
Trump’s budget for fiscal 2019, unveiled in tandem with his infrastructure proposal, would zero out the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program launched through the Obama-era stimulus package. It would also slash Transportation Department funding by roughly one-fifth over current levels, including a cut of more than $120 billion in federal aid to the insolvent Highway Trust Fund.
“At the end of the day, the big failure [of the infrastructure plan] is it doesn’t really address the shortcomings in the transportation fund,” said Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican appropriator. “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to find some additional source of revenue. Probably not a lot of appetite for that this year, in an election year.”
Congress has repeatedly rejected draconian Trump administration budget cuts in appropriations bills for fiscal 2018 as lawmakers struggle to cobble together an omnibus funding package by next month. Many Republican leaders are owning up to the difficulty in shaving off large swathes of spending.
The $200 billion in federal funding drawn from savings would require a $20 billion annual reduction in spending.
“Obviously it’d be hard,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt, who sits on the Appropriations Committee. “I know there’s enough waste in a lot of different categories that you could probably find a lot. Will you find $20 billion? I don’t know.”
For Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the appropriator with jurisdiction over the Transportation Department, the proposal calls to mind the 2013 debate over transportation funding, when the appropriations bill was pulled from the floor after bipartisan objections to deep spending cuts kept it from getting enough votes to pass.
“There are things that have very strong support,” Diaz-Balart said. “You’ve got to get the votes.”
Still, for conservatives, the debt-busting budget just signed by Trump makes it harder to justify spending even more money on an infrastructure plan.
“The House and the Senate last week made it that much more difficult to move that process along,” said Rep. Scott Perry, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We only have so much money to spend.”
Trump is hoping to leverage that $200 billion to encourage $1.5 trillion in total funding—the remainder coming from state and local government and private companies.
Meanwhile, internal Trump administration discord is emerging in the debate over savings versus new revenue. According to a Wednesday report by Axios, Trump is willing to get behind a 25-cent increase in the gas tax, a virtual nonstarter for many Republicans on Capitol Hill, to fund infrastructure.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao telegraphed that seemingly contradictory position at a White House press conference Tuesday.
“The president has not declared anything out of bounds, so everything is on the table. The gas tax, like many of the other pay-fors that are being discussed, is not ideal. There are pros and cons,” Chao said.
Regardless of the lack of cohesion on the funding front, some lawmakers are now saying an infrastructure package may not be worthwhile in an election year likely to be pockmarked with controversy and partisanship.
“I think maybe the Democrats want the infrastructure more than we do,” said GOP Rep. Kenny Marchant. “The need to have the infrastructure is going to have to be great enough to push the desire to find the pay-fors. And I’m not really sure we’re there yet.”
What We're Following See More »
"Two days after President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian officials offered a string of assertions about what the two leaders had achieved. 'Important verbal agreements' were reached at the Helsinki meeting, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters in Moscow Wednesday, including preservation of the New Start and INF agreements," and cooperation in Syria.
"Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election. The evidence included texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation. Mr. Trump sounded grudgingly convinced, according to several people who attended the intelligence briefing. But ever since, Mr. Trump has tried to cloud the very clear findings that he received on Jan. 6, 2017, which his own intelligence leaders have unanimously endorsed."