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Trump’s infrastructure push hits wall in Congress

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Trump's infrastructure push hits wall in Congress

Less than a month after its release, President Trump ‘s infrastructure plan appears to have crashed and burned in Congress.

Republicans are openly questioning whether action on the issue is likely, while their leaders are moving on to other priorities.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Wednesday night added another nail in the coffin by declaring a gas tax increase off the table, removing what many lawmakers saw as the most viable funding stream for a rebuilding overhaul. 

In a bid to regain momentum, the Trump administration is sending five Cabinet members to testify to a Senate panel Wednesday about the infrastructure plan.

But whether the show of force will be enough to jolt Congress into action remains to be seen, with the dispute over the gas tax looming as a major obstacle.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), have long argued that an increase to the federal gasoline tax would be the quickest way to generate funding for rebuilding projects.

“Right now the simplest and fastest answer is a user fee and the gas tax,” Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), a member of the committee, told The Hill this week.

“This would be a fix for right now which is what we need. We need some money now.”

Money from the 18.4-cent gas tax goes into the Highway Trust Fund to pay for road projects. But that levy hasn’t been raised since 1993, eroding the fund’s purchasing power.

Shuster, who for months maintained that all options were on the table to pay for infrastructure, on Wednesday said “it’s time” to increase the gas tax.

“The easiest one for us to all understand, not that it’s easy to pass or increase, is what we pay at the pump,” Shuster said during a Subcommittee on Highways and Transit hearing.

Hours later, Ryan dismissed the possibility of hiking the tax, arguing it would “undo” the recently passed Republican tax cuts.

“Well, we’re not going to raise gas taxes so I don’t foresee that as a problem. We’re just not going to do that here,” the Speaker told a telephone town hall.

“There are some people who are talking about that, but the last thing we want to do is pass historic tax relief in December and then undo that, so we are not going to raise gas taxes.”

While the administration’s infrastructure blueprint does not specifically call for upping the levy, lawmakers who participated in a bipartisan meeting at the White House last month said the president suggested a 25-cent increase. 

“The president supports a gas tax, I will stand next to the president,” DeFazio said this week, arguing a plan would be bipartisan if Trump threw his support behind the tax hike. 

“Well if you don’t increase taxes, we’re not having an infrastructure bill, and we’re doing nothing,” he added.

But DeFazio also noted that the House Ways and Means Committee has yet to hold a hearing to consider funding streams for a potential rebuilding initiative. 

“Until they hold a hearing and we see some progress, we would just be wasting our time over here to move forward or say we’re going to move forward with some legislation that isn’t going to be paid for or financed,” DeFazio said.

Despite Trump’s push for infrastructure during his State of the Union address, GOP leaders have appeared reluctant to embrace it.

During a conference meeting this week, House Republican leaders presented their members a list of priorities for the year’s legislative calendar. While a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made the cut, infrastructure did not.

Ryan appeared to deal a further blow to those pressing for a sweeping infrastructure bill on Thursday by stating that the House plans to tackle rebuilding “in about five or six different bills.”

In his remarks, Ryan referenced both the FAA reauthorization and the upcoming omnibus spending package, another must-pass bill lawmakers are negotiating ahead of the March 23 deadline. He described the omnibus as a “down payment on the infrastructure plan” and also pointed to the Water Resources Development Act, a waterways bill Congress re-ups every two years.

But lawmakers like Shuster, who is retiring at the end of his current term, had been clamoring for a larger package to address the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, transit systems, airports and other public works. 

“My intent is and hopefully working with the Democrats on the committee to put together a big, broad bipartisan infrastructure bill,” Shuster said Wednesday before Ryan’s outright rejection of the gas tax. 

“I think that it takes presidential leadership to do the things we need to do,” the chairman added.

Despite Ryan’s opposition to increasing the gas fee, Shuster said he isn’t frustrated with the Speaker after conversing with him on the House floor Thursday morning.

While the prospects for the Trump administration’s proposal remain dim, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will continue to make her rounds in front of the relevant congressional committees with jurisdiction over any infrastructure legislation.

Chao is slated to testify next week in front of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the administration’s proposal, which calls for the use of public-private partnerships and funding from state and local governments to generate a $1.5 trillion rebuilding package using $200 billion of federal seed money.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 Republican in the upper chamber, who also chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, conceded that Ryan’s stance on the gas tax makes it difficult for Congress to press forward on a larger proposal.

“Well it probably means that a big robust infrastructure plan is going to be hard to do if there’s not the money to do it. But I think there are things we can do in the context of an infrastructure bill with some amount of funding,” Thune said Thursday. 

“But absent a funding mechanism, something along the size and scale of what the president is proposing will be challenging.”

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