Trump, Pelosi infrastructure talks invite skepticism
K Street sees Tuesday’s meeting between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Trump as a last-chance bid to move on a bipartisan infrastructure deal this year.
At the beginning of the Congress, advocates expressed hope that infrastructure was one of the few issues where House Democrats were likely to work with Trump. But there has been frustration that both sides have made little public progress toward a deal.
Those who spoke to The Hill hoped the Tuesday meeting would give the issue new momentum.
“I’m an optimist on infrastructure legislation,” Greg Louer, managing director at Arnold & Porter, told The Hill.
“This is an issue that is not inherently partisan, and if all parties involved commit to forging ahead with a reasonable finance plan that respects major stakeholder interests, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle can get a deal done,” he predicted.
Passing an infrastructure bill, which Trump has said could be $1 trillion, has been a priority for business groups. Major industries, including transportation and construction, have been banging the drum on the issue and drawing up wish lists, even with few signs of progress.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports raising the federal tax on gas to pay for a bill, has increased spending on infrastructure issues, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The administration’s own efforts to push infrastructure, though, have become a punchline in some circles, regularly being overtaken by the president’s controversies. And Trump and Democratic leaders are far apart on some key issues, most notably how to pay for the big-ticket plan.
In a letter to Trump on Monday, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) detailed their demands for any deal, including a focus on climate change, “new and real revenue” likely in the form of taxes, and labor protections for American workers.
Louer said key leaders on Congress’s transportation committees are also “quietly working” on legislation to reauthorize surface transportation funding programs that are set to expire in 2020. But nothing has been released publicly and it is unclear how close lawmakers are to an agreement.
K Street is hopeful the meeting will give a jump-start to the issue.
“A high-level agreement between the president and Democratic congressional leaders could ignite the process and provide momentum for additional activity,” Louer said.
Rachel Derby, the vice president of government affairs at the Portland Cement Association, said the meeting could give a needed push on the issue but that agreeing on funding for any package would be a challenge.
“We are confident that if a clear and unified statement on a funding solution were to come from the three of them following this meeting next Tuesday, the chains of political inertia finally could be broken,” she told The Hill.
She called the meeting good news, but added, “It will be better news if it results in a cooperative approach to a gas tax funding solution that addresses our mounting infrastructure emergency.”
Trump has said he would be open to hiking the federal gas tax to pay for infrastructure. But while a 25-cent hike has the support of Democrats and the Chamber of Commerce, Trump would have a tough time selling that to fellow Republicans.
Trump and Pelosi are closer on infrastructure than other issues, but any deal could likely put them at odds with the rank-and-file of their own parties.
That has many on K Street skeptical Tuesday’s meeting will make much headway.
Geoff Burr, policy director at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, told The Hill he thinks there will be “greater consensus” between Trump, Pelosi and Schumer than there is among the congressional Democratic and Republican conferences on infrastructure.
And he cautioned that other issues, such as Democrats’ next steps on the Mueller report and increased oversight of the administration, could get in the way.
“Other unrelated but acutely divisive issues like the Mueller report or a budget caps deal will prevent any significant progress from being made on Tuesday,” said Burr, who was Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s chief of staff before joining Brownstein in January. “Once those issues are behind us, true progress becomes possible.”
Others who spoke to The Hill agreed that other issues would continue to overshadow infrastructure and expressed disappointment that 2020 candidates rarely speak about the issue.
“The simple fact is Congress can’t agree on something that would be a win for everyone involved that literally just gets our national transportation infrastructure where it should be,” Brian Johnson, principal at the Vogel Group, told The Hill. “As in fixing the potholes and ensuring all those bridges President Obama talked about not collapsing into the water.”
“We aren’t even talking major improvements or modernization,” Johnson continued. “So, sure, let’s talk about free college, abolishing cars and an army in outer space. Sounds great. I’d like a unicorn too.”
Burr said he’s more optimistic about Congress taking up a bill next year. He floated the possibility of House Democrats passing their own package to drum up support.
“I think the most that would happen this year would be the Dems pass a bill that Republicans can’t palate,” Burr said. “Maybe part of a process we need to go through is to have an infrastructure measure pass the House and have it fail in the Senate, so they’ve done that exercise and they can start work on a compromise next year.”
Burr said a deadline could give Congress an extra push.
“In some ways, the most helpful aspect of this is there’s this FAST Act expiration coming, because it’s apparent that absent some kind of cliff or deadline, Congress doesn’t really do anything anymore,” he said.
The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act was enacted in 2015 under Obama and is set to expire at the end of 2020. The law will fund more than $305 billion for surface transportation, including highways, over its five-year span.
Business groups though are keeping up the pressure on lawmakers and the administration.
Cement industry executives from around the country came to Washington earlier this month to urge Congress to get to work on infrastructure.
The North American Concrete Alliance, including the Washington, D.C.-based Portland Cement Association, hosted the third annual Cement and Concrete Fly-In to discuss infrastructure and other issues, and met with 160 lawmakers.
Derby said that the executives let lawmakers know “it is time to stop talking and start acting.”
“During our meetings, members’ support for infrastructure spending was universal.”
Industries and groups are also pushing for a broader understanding of what the infrastructure bill would cover, including water projects and technology.
The National Association of Clean Water Agencies told The Hill that the first step to meeting clean water needs is addressing infrastructure.
“As infrastructure ages around the country — requiring costly maintenance and replacement — and as the cost of clean water compliance continues to rise, local communities are struggling to finance and afford clean and safe water,” CEO Adam Krantz told The Hill.
Including those many stakeholders could give legislation a boost.
“Everybody on Capitol Hill has a different idea in their heads of what ‘infrastructure’ means,” said Burr.
“Many people think it’s mainly roads and bridges, but many Democrats and rural state Republicans are not going to get on board unless it involves things like investment in broadband deployment.”