President Trump is escalating his feud with the conservative House Freedom Caucus, with his $1 trillion infrastructure package hanging in the balance.
The conservative caucus is sure to play a role in the legislative fight over rebuilding the nation’s roads, bridges and highways, something Trump promised to deliver during his campaign.
Massive federal spending on transportation has long given fiscal conservatives heartburn.
And Freedom Caucus lawmakers who support Trump’s infrastructure push may have to work extra hard now to convince fellow members to support the president’s proposal, especially after Trump stepped up his attacks on some lawmakers in the group this week.
But transportation leaders warn it would be a mistake to count out the support of the Freedom Caucus on infrastructure, assuming the measure is fully paid for with a palatable offset.
Numerous members sit on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and some are even lead sponsors on infrastructure investment bills — including one related to tax reform that appears to be gaining steam.
“I have members of the Freedom Caucus on my committee. They’ve been very supportive,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said during an event hosted by The Hill this week.
“It’s one of those things they embrace. They may not always agree on how we go about it, but I think we can get a coalition to get a big, bipartisan vote.”
The Freedom Caucus members on the Transportation panel include Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), the group’s chairman, and Reps. Brian Babin (Texas), Scott Perry (Pa.), Mark Sanford (S.C.) and Randy Weber (Texas.)
Trump has called on Congress to move a $1 trillion infrastructure package later this year. The White House is still in the early stages of crafting a proposal, but Trump has signaled that it will streamline regulatory hurdles and target transportation projects where enough advanced planning has already been completed so work can start shortly. It is expected to be paid for with a mix of public and private financing.
There were questions over whether the House Freedom Caucus would torpedo the infrastructure package even before Trump slammed the group on Twitter this week for its role in the failure of the ObamaCare repeal effort.
Trump’s transportation plan was always going to be a tough sell with fiscal conservatives.
The 2016 GOP platform calls for eliminating federal funding for mass transit, bike-share programs, sidewalks and rail-to-rail projects.
But transportation leaders are swatting down concerns that Trump’s deteriorating relationship with conservatives will complicate their efforts.
“After I talked about my proposal for user fees for aviation, harbor maintenance and surface infrastructure, I had a couple of members of the Freedom Caucus tell me that they liked those ideas, [because] they were user fee based and did not create debt,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Meadows, chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on government operations, has had a hand in overseeing Washington’s Metro system. He agreed at a hearing this week to help push for federal funding for the agency if certain conditions are met.
Meadows has also sponsored a bill that would allow U.S. corporations to bring back their foreign earnings at a lower corporate tax rate and use that revenue to replenish the ailing Highway Trust Fund, among other things.
“A robust and efficient infrastructure is critical to growing the economy, driving down unemployment, and putting our country on track towards a balanced budget,” Meadows says on his website.
“The Constitution makes it clear that one of the primary goals of the federal government is to establish roads and highways in order to facilitate commerce between the states.”
Perry believes infrastructure investment must be done responsibly but says public-private partnerships could be one option to enhance transportation and boost economic development.
Freedom Caucus member Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) is not on the Transportation Committee but is one of the lead sponsors on legislation to allow U.S. multinational corporations to repatriate earnings at a mandatory, one-time tax of 8.75 percent.
Those revenues would be used to improve the nation’s infrastructure, with an estimated $120 billion going to the Highway Trust Fund, $50 billion going to an infrastructure bank and $25 million going to a pilot program focused on rural infrastructure.
With reports that the White House may now move tax reform and infrastructure at the same time, momentum could be building for Yoho’s bill.
“This is neither a Democratic or Republican issue,” Yoho said during a recent meeting with reporters. “We’re looking at problems and we’re looking at solutions that are neither Democratic or Republican. They’re American solutions. That’s what I love about this opportunity.”
Other conservatives not in the Freedom Caucus could also support Trump’s infrastructure push. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who often sides with the far-right group, teamed up with DeFazio on a bill that would lift the federal cap on passenger fees in order to help airports pay for facility upgrades.
Shuster points out that the conference has come together to move infrastructure bills in recent years, including a multi-year surface highway bill and a major waterways bill.
“When you talk to some of these [Freedom Caucus] members, they believe as I do the government has a limited role. The first and foremost is national security, but second is the building of infrastructure. It’s a core function,” Shuster said.
“If you look at where a lot of those ports are in need of investment, it’s Georgia, it’s South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida. That’s where a lot of our Freedom Caucus friends live. So they know the importance of infrastructure.”
Any transportation investment bill, however, can’t add to the deficit in order to garner the support of fiscal conservatives. It will also have to place a heavy emphasis on leveraging private-sector dollars for public-private partnerships — the preferred funding tool among Republicans, but one that could trip up support among Democrats if there is no direct federal spending along with it.
Conservatives could also take issue with funneling money toward projects that look like earmarks or “government boondoggles.” There could also be reluctance to back anything that looks like Obama’s economic stimulus package, which was criticized for how long “shovel-ready” projects took to get off the ground.
But Trump’s infrastructure proposal doesn’t necessarily need the backing of the Freedom Caucus. He could negotiate a deal with Democrats, especially in the Senate, where Democratic senators have signaled they are open to working with the president on an infrastructure package.
“The best path, if you were counseling the president, you’d ask him to pick up the phone and call [Senate Democratic Leader Charles] Schumer [N.Y.] and see if you can have some kind of a framework for a deal there,” said Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.).
“And then you’d go to [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)] and see if you could get some buy-in… and get something there, and then just go to the House.”