By Melanie Zanona and Vicki Needham
This article appeared on The Hill on Nov. 17, 2016
Republicans in Congress appear ready to embrace President-elect Donald Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure proposal — at least for now.
But even the most optimistic lawmakers caution that conservative support for his plan will hinge on the details, such as how the package is paid for and whether it’s coupled with other GOP priorities.
“There’s an interest among our members, frankly, on both sides, in doing something on infrastructure,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told reporters. “But my guess is, if that gets done, it probably hitches a ride on tax reform. I don’t know that just an infrastructure bill on its own, as a stand-alone, would go anywhere.”
It’s unclear exactly what Trump’s final proposal will look like. He has called for $550 billion worth of infrastructure investment paid for by bonds, as well as a $1 trillion package financed by offering tax credits to private investors.
Buzz was growing Wednesday that Trump’s economic adviser is now looking at establishing a national infrastructure bank, an idea long favored by Democrats that has gone nowhere under the Republican-led Congress. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, included such a bank in her infrastructure plan.
Still, more than a dozen Republicans surveyed by The Hill said they were encouraged that the issue was being prioritized by the incoming administration.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a long time till he presents a specific plan to us, but I think it’s a positive step,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, told The Hill. “There’s going to be a lot of interesting suggestions. And that’s refreshing.”
The Obama administration frequently pressed Congress to act on infrastructure spending.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO came together five years ago with lawmakers to propose an infrastructure bank, which would have provided low-interest loans and other financial assistance to encourage investors to back national infrastructure projects.
Republicans blocked a $447 billion infrastructure package in 2011 from President Obama because of its massive price tag, despite the support from business and labor.
But Trump’s election could change the dynamic in Congress, where the idea of an infrastructure bank and massive federal spending on transportation projects has typically given fiscal conservatives heartburn.
“It’s music to my ears,” said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), chairman of a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee and member of Trump’s transition team. “There’s nothing better for this country and getting back to work than a robust infrastructure agenda.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has focused on deepening the Port of Charleston, said that of all issues Trump has talked about, infrastructure spending is the one most likely to pass Congress.
“So when President-elect Trump mentions infrastructure, count me in,” Graham, who had a contentious relationship with Trump during the campaign, told reporters. “And I hope he’ll look at ports, inland and coastal, highways and bridges are falling in disrepair.”
Moderate Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said there is a real opportunity for the Trump administration to bring the parties together on infrastructure.
“There will have to be some kind of sustainable revenue source. I think a lot of things are going to have to be on the table,” he said.
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said he also supports a plan to ramp up infrastructure spending but will wait to see how the details develop around financing and priorities.
“I’ve felt all along that the best opportunity to get a bipartisan process working would be on infrastructure,” he said.
Yet enthusiasm alone won’t be enough to get a massive transportation spending bill over the finish line.
Lawmakers acknowledged that coming up with a palatable budget offset would be a herculean task.
“The concept is right on target,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, told The Hill. “How we do it, that’s the key.”
Conservatives have made clear that increasing the federal gas tax to pay for infrastructure is a nonstarter. There’s more appetite for taxing corporate earnings that are being stored abroad, a process called “repatriation” when that money returns to the U.S.
But Republicans have also floated repatriation as a way to finance tax reform.
“I like the idea of using at least a part of repatriation to pay for infrastructure,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “I think there has been a debate in the government about to what extent to use repatriation to pave the way for tax reform. I tend to believe there’s enough revenue out there to do both.”
Trump’s proposal does not rely on repatriation, but the renewed talk about an infrastructure bank suggests his plan is far from finalized.
“There are a number of vehicles that could finance infrastructure that would meet the approval of conservatives, whether it’s public-private partnerships, investment bonds, repatriation,” said Rep. Mark Meadows.
The North Carolina Republican said other components of the plan that may be important to conservatives are whether it ensures dollars are distributed fairly across the country and whether it rolls back certain regulatory hurdles to getting projects off the ground, one of the major critiques of Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus plan.
“I think that our infrastructure is in dire need of help all over this country,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “I think President-elect Trump’s right on that it would put a lot of people to work and do some substantive things.”
GOP leadership has so far treaded carefully when it comes to Trump’s $1 trillion proposal.
“We’re going to work on all of these things in the transition,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said during a Tuesday press conference, when asked about Trump’s plan. “So, it’s going to take time to figure out exactly what bill comes where and how it all adds up. But that’s what the congressional process is all about.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the majority whip, noted that Congress just passed a “substantial” five-year highway bill at the end of last year. The legislation was financed through a series of budgetary gimmicks, underscoring the challenge of finding long-term funding solutions.
Cornyn said Senate Republicans would at least be interested in hearing Trump’s ideas and how to pay for it.
Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said an infrastructure spending bill would need to be offset in order to get his vote and the vote of other conservatives.
“If Trump doesn’t find a way to pay for it, then I think the majority of us, if not all of us, are going to vote against it,” Labrador said at an event moderated by the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday.
Lawmakers may also face pressure from outside conservative groups, which have been pressuring Trump to steer clear of any package that adds to the deficit or looks like an economic stimulus plan.
“That’s going to go through some pretty significant and rigorous vetting in the Congress,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), another member of the House Freedom Caucus, said of Trump’s proposal. “Reality will ultimately be the arbiter of the final version.”