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White House stalls on endorsing $2 trillion for public works

Two sides will meet again in three weeks to discuss ways to pay for massive plan

Congressional Democrats talk to reporters following a Tuesday meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House on infrastructure. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Congressional Democrats talk to reporters following a Tuesday meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House on infrastructure. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Updated 7:13 p.m. | Congressional Democrats said President Donald Trump agreed to pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure package after a Tuesday morning meeting, but White House officials later said the administration is not ready to endorse a specific spending amount.

“We agreed on a number, which was very, very good,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said outside the White House following the meeting. “Originally, we had started a little lower but even the president was eager to push it up to $2 trillion. There was goodwill in this meeting and that was different from other meetings that we have had.”

Appearing with Schumer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the meeting “very productive.”

The meeting was labeled “productive” as well by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said in a statement the U.S. “has not come even close to properly investing in infrastructure for many years, foolishly prioritizing the interests of other countries over our own.”

She did not mention an agreement on spending. Another White House official later didn’t dispute the figure heralded by the Democrats, but indicated the administration will hold off on endorsing a specific amount since talks are in the early stages.

All of the parties said the Democrats and the president agreed to meet again in three weeks to discuss specific ways to pay for the huge tab.

Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, said he doubts the $2 trillion figure would prove realistic.

“Until they tell us how they’re actually going to pay for it, agreeing on a number doesn’t mean very much,” he told reporters.

But he agreed Trump’s approval of that level of spending would make it easier for Republicans to get on board.

“Look, I don’t think it will be easy if it’s just on the credit card, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy for the president to finance,” Cole said. “If they come to a deal that he’s willing to sign, that will free up a certain number of Republicans who want to do this. But you’re not going to see Republicans proposing major tax increases until they know where the president really is.”

Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley told CQ Roll Call he was not ready to comment on the possible spending agreement before the appropriate congressional committees make a proposal.

While some lawmakers have previously indicated they want an infrastructure deal completed before the August recess, Grassley said he did not anticipate that happening this summer, but “before Christmas.”

[White House targets Joe Biden, sets low bar for infrastructure confab]

Fuel taxes

There is bipartisan agreement to fix the nation’s crumbling public works but both parties have sparred on how to pay for it. On the Senate floor Monday, Schumer said a comprehensive infrastructure package could be paid for by rolling back the GOP-passed 2017 tax cuts. And a person close to Schumer said the New York Democrat would tie the passage of the first fuel tax increase since 1993 to the repeal of some of those cuts.

Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who also attended the Tuesday meeting, said the atmosphere was friendly, although Democrats recognized there were some issues Trump would not agree to, such as revisiting the 2017 tax cuts.

She said the prospect of specifically raising the fuel tax did not come up at the meeting. “There were various things that were talked about, but not in detail,” she said.

The federal fuel tax, which helps pay for highways, bridges and public transit systems, has not been revised since 1993 and industry groups are pressing for an update as key to raising money to pay for infrastructure spending.

“The foundational pillar of any long-term infrastructure package is a sustainable, growing, user-fee based revenue stream for the Highway Trust Fund,” Dave Bauer, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said in a news release. “It remains the linchpin for any final and meaningful deal between the Trump administration and Congress.”

Sen. Ron Wyden suggested any deal on infrastructure financing would have to ensure tax “fairness” for lower-income people, as lawmakers consider raising the federal gasoline tax.

“The key to breaking the gridlock is to have a genuine sense of fairness so you don’t have Americans walk away and say, ‘Hey, the biggest corporations got $320 billion in tax cuts that are permanent in the tax bill and now working-class folks are going to take a big financial … hit’” from a fuel tax, the Oregon Democrat said. “Fairness for working-class people and economic growth are not incompatible. You can do both.”

Any bill that would attempt to unwind some of Trump’s 2017 tax cuts would be a nonstarter for the president’s congressional backers and could complicate chances for a deal if Democrats tried to make that part of an infrastructure package.

“As far as I’m concerned, I can’t speak for any other senator or the president, but the success that the tax bill has done for the economy, I would not want to change anything in the tax cut,” Grassley told CQ Roll Call.

Trump has previously asked Congress to provide $200 billion over a decade that the administration argued would lead to $1 trillion in private and state funding for infrastructure projects.

His support of a higher number would provide a win for industry groups that would benefit from the spending and provide cover to congressional Republicans who are typically reluctant to increase government spending.

[Will another ‘Infrastructure Week’ fail amid White House, congressional tension?]

Pelosi first floated the prospect of a $2 trillion infrastructure bill earlier this month, a number that some Republicans immediately dismissed as too high and unrealistic.

Democrats had gone into the meeting with specific demands: a bold and big infrastructure plan that not only pays for transportation systems but also upgrades schools, energy works, water systems and addresses climate risks.

“It’s about jobs, jobs, jobs. It’s about promoting commerce, it’s about clean air, clean water and therefore a public health issue … and in every way it’s a safety issue,” Pelosi said after the meeting. “We did come to one agreement, that the agreement would be big and bold.”

Pelosi said Trump had also agreed that an infrastructure deal should include broadband.

“And his embrace of that, in addition to transportation and water issues was very important,” she said.

Asked if investigating Trump or passing an infrastructure bill is of bigger importance to Democrats, Pelosi said her party is focused on meeting its obligations to the American people. Schumer was more explicit.

“I think that we can do both,” the New York Democrat said. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Unlike past meetings, the president made no threats about torpedoing bipartisan efforts if House Democrats’ probes continue, Schumer said.

Kellie Mejdrich, David Lerman and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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