Cutting Dems out on infrastructure could cost key votes

The White House is readying the $1 trillion infrastructure push that has long been seen as one of the few bipartisan legislative achievements that could be accomplished next year. 

The need for a bill that can win bipartisan support became even more crucial after Tuesday’s stunning special election in Alabama, when voters sent a Democrat to the Senate for the first time in over 20 years and chipped away at the GOP’s already razor-thin majority.

But President Trump’s infrastructure approach has so far run into resistance from congressional Democrats who are disappointed that they have not been included in the bill-writing process, casting doubts on whether they will come to the table in the infrastructure debate next year.

“Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much bipartisanship lately,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “Few outside of the administration actually know what’s going to be in the president’s plan, whether they will include highly controversial provisions, or how it will be paid for.”

{mosads}The White House plans to submit “detailed legislative principles” to Congress in early January outlining Trump’s vision for upgrading U.S. roads, bridges and other public works. Trump initially promised to address the issue within his first 100 days in office, but the issue has slipped to the back burner amid other GOP priorities this year.

Officials are still putting the finishing touches on the roughly 70-page infrastructure document, which is expected to serve as the building block for lawmakers to write actual legislation next year. 

Ahead of the proposal’s release, Trump huddled with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in the Oval Office this week to discus the effort.

The administration has long said it wants to use $200 billion in federal seed money, along with significant permit reform and other incentives, to leverage $1 trillion worth of overall infrastructure investment in the country.

Trump policy adviser D.J. Gribbin said at an infrastructure event this week that the wide-ranging package will be divided into four categories: incentives for cities and states that raise their own revenue streams, block grants for rural areas, money for transformational projects and infrastructure financing programs.

Shuster cautioned that there is still a “lot of work to do” on the plan, but said he has every intention to reach across the aisle and incorporate Democrats into the process.

“The Democrats want to do infrastructure,” he told The Hill. “We’ll find out where they are.”

Indeed, after Trump’s victory last year, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) were quick to point to infrastructure as one of the few areas that they would be willing to work with Trump.

But Democrats have changed their tune as new details about the plan have emerged and as the Trump administration has proposed slashing funding for the Transportation Department and key infrastructure programs. 

“Democrats put forward our ideas on infrastructure back in January because we were eager to get to work and have an honest policy discussion with President Trump and our Republican colleagues,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee. “But since then it’s always ‘next month.’ We’re always being told that we’ll see details next quarter or next month. And I’m just looking forward to when ‘next month’ finally arrives.”

Democrats, who laid out their own $1 trillion infrastructure plan earlier this year, prefer to inject federal funding directly into the nation’s transportation system. 

But some of the rebuilding ideas pitched by the administration so far include giving tax credits to the private sector for backing infrastructure projects and rewarding cities and states that raise their own revenue for infrastructure. 

Democrats have slammed the public-private partnership model as a corporate giveaway that will only lead to more tollways, while they worry the administration’s proposed local incentive program will pave the way for “devolution” — or eventually handing off all federal infrastructure duties to local governments.

“What is the plan? Until we see paper, I’m not convinced there is a plan,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “I look forward to the president sending a proposal to Congress next month so we can finally see the emperor’s new clothes.”

It also may be difficult for Democrats to pivot toward a bipartisan infrastructure deal after a year of ugly partisan fights over health care, taxes and other contentious issues. They are still facing a potentially bruising battle over immigration in the months ahead, and Trump has maintained a tumultuous relationship with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. 

Transportation advocates think the White House should have started with an infrastructure package right out of the gate. But now they worry it’s too late to move a bipartisan proposal over the finish line.

“This year has been a missed opportunity for infrastructure,” said former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (R), who co-chairs Building America’s Future. “If this Congress, the White House and the leadership had started out with infrastructure and a way to pay for it, that bill would have been passed and hundreds of people would have been working on bridges and roads.” 

2018 is an election year, further complicating Trump’s infrastructure agenda. Democrats may be reluctant to hand Trump a legislative victory next year, especially after it appears that both the House and Senate could be in play after the Alabama Senate race.

The White House’s best shot at wooing Democrats could be to focus on vulnerable lawmakers who are up for reelection next year in states that Trump won.

The administration could also include Democratic sweeteners like a gas tax hike in the bill — something Trump is still considering, despite resistance from Republicans.

It’s unclear whether the White House plans to host meetings or conduct other outreach with Democrats in the coming months to discuss the rebuilding effort. 

But some Democrats are already taking matters into their own hands. 

Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), a member of the congressional Problem Solvers Caucus, is helping the group craft a bipartisan infrastructure report that they hope will be incorporated into Trump’s plan.

Esty says she has “no idea” whether the rest of her party would be willing to play along with Trump on an infrastructure bill, but said voters “want us to get things done.”

“I will support the president where I think he’s right and oppose him where he’s wrong, but I want to be working on things that do the peoples’ business,” Esty told The Hill. “This is an area for common ground. It ought to be team America, not red team versus blue team.”

Tags Bill Nelson Bill Shuster Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Elaine Chao Elizabeth Esty Nancy Pelosi Peter DeFazio Tom Carper

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