Republicans Cool To Paying For Trump’s Infrastructure Plan With Transportation Cuts

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a meeting on his infrastructure initiative at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration has not proposed a way to pay for its newly released infrastructure plan, a gaping omission officials say is intentional in order to allow Congress to reach bipartisan consensus on how to fund badly needed upgrades to the nation’s roads, bridges, and waterways.

But one White House suggestion ― offsetting the $200 billion in direct spending over 10 years the proposal calls for with cuts to popular transportation programs like Amtrak, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Highway Trust Fund ― landed like a lead balloon among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said Tuesday he did not support cutting existing Department of Transportation programs to pay for Trump’s plan. He singled out the Army Corps of Engineers ― which performs critical functions in Mississippi like safeguarding the water supply and flood protection ― as responsible for “vital infrastructure projects that create jobs and help our economy.”

“Well, infrastructure ― a lot of it is transportation,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) added.

The budget document President Donald Trump released on Monday proposed a 22.2 percent cut to the Army Corps of Engineers. And despite calls to increase railroad safety after several deadly train crashes, the administration proposed cutting Amtrak funding by over 50 percent. In sum total, the budget includes a 28.6 percent cut to transportation spending from 2017 to 2023.

While White House budgets express an administration’s values and priorities, they have ceased to be taken literally by lawmakers of either party. Moreover, the prospect of slashing funding for domestic programs seems unlikely, given that Congress last week sealed a budget deal that allows for an extra $300 billion to be spent on such initiatives over the next two years. The specific levels of funding for various programs will be determined in an omnibus budget package due next month.

“You and I both know that the president’s budget is just an outline of how the administration would see it. That’s been true with every president,” Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) told HuffPost on Tuesday.

She suggested that portions of the $21.4 billion in annual fees collected by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol can be utilized as a revenue stream for new infrastructure projects.

Fischer is a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which is scheduled to hold a hearing next week to discuss the president’s proposal.

Other GOP senators similarly dodged questions about whether they supported cutting existing programs to pay for Trump’s infrastructure plan.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure, suggested the Trump administration’s proposal would pay for itself due to the tax revenue captured from additional economic activity. It’s the same argument Republicans made when they said that their tax cut law would not add $1.5 trillion to the debt, contrary to an analysis by nonpartisan budget experts like the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Asked about how to pay for Trump’s plan, Inhofe said “the big one, obviously, is already happening and that is the increase in our economic activity. … That’s going to be the biggest pay-for of all.”

Trump is scheduled to host a bipartisan meeting of congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday to discuss his infrastructure proposal, but it’s difficult to see how it gains traction with either party. Conservatives are leery about any new spending, while Democrats say Trump’s plan is woefully inadequate, arguing that it would unfairly reward private investors in the form of tolls and fees.

“Already cash-strapped state and local governments would likely have to raise taxes on their constituents to fund new investment,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday. “Meanwhile, private entities will seek projects with the quickest return on investment.”

While Trump’s plan received glowing praise from Republicans in both chambers on Monday, the lack of specifics from the president on funding it frustrated some members his own party.

“The fact we’re this far into the revenue and tax discussion without a revenue stream is troublesome,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said. “They’re proposing $10 billion [for infrastructure] in each of the next two years as part of the [budget] deal, but where they get the other $180 billion over the next 10 years is not certain.”