The earth-shattering news out of Washington Tuesday was that President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats actually agreed on something — at least in principle.
At a long-awaited infrastructure meeting on Tuesday, Trump and Democrats temporarily hit pause on their months-long feud over multiple Democratic investigations into Trump’s personal finances and his administration. The two sides characterized their meeting as constructive and positive, a rare achievement for an executive and legislative branch often warring with each other. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called the meeting “excellent” and “productive” in a statement.
Even more surprising, Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed they should invest $2 trillion in the nation’s roads, bridges, and rural broadband, according to Democratic leaders. But they didn’t get to any of the hard specifics, like how they’d pay for such a massive investment.
“I like the number you’ve been using, Nancy: 2 trillion,” Trump told Pelosi, according to a Democratic source. “That number you can talk about.”
After the meeting, Schumer said Democrats hadn’t even made that their opening bid. “Originally, we started a little lower. Even the president was eager to push it up to $2 trillion and that is a very good thing,” Schumer said at a press conference. Democrats are thrilled with that number; Republicans likely won’t be. Trump himself admitted his plan “may not be typically Republican,” according to the source.
Therein lies the massive sticking point that has yet to be discussed: how this $2 trillion investment will be paid for. That won’t be discussed until another White House meeting in three weeks.
“We want to hear his ideas on funding; that’s going to be the crucial point in my opinion,” Schumer said.
Why would Democrats possibly want to work with Trump on infrastructure?
Democrats have been at loggerheads with the president since they won back the speaker’s gavel in 2018. It’s not just because of congressional investigations; House Democrats have passed multiple pieces of legislation at odds with Trump’s agenda, including a sweeping anti-corruption bill, protections for the Affordable Care Act, and a bill to strengthen background checks for gun sales.
Trump’s White House has said it would veto most of these bills if they made it to the president’s desk, and they’ve all hit a dead end in the Republican-controlled Senate. In fact, infrastructure is one of perhaps two areas where there’s some hope of bipartisan agreement (the other is lowering prescription drug costs).
Given all that, what incentive do Democrats have to work with Trump and be willing to possibly hand the president a win on infrastructure?
Democrats’ explanation of this strategy is simple: They know the American people are sick and tired of a dysfunctional Congress that doesn’t seem to get anything done. Increased infrastructure spending is popular — something that nearly 65 percent of the public supports, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. Infrastructure and the well-paying jobs it provides was something Democrats campaigned on in 2018, and it helped boost dozens of moderate candidates to beat Republican in the midterms.
In the months since they swept the midterms, Democrats don’t have a lot of tangible policy wins to point to. They know they can’t get the lion’s share of their agenda signed into law, but infrastructure is a rare opportunity, and Americans could see real benefits from it: cracked roads rebuilt, old and contaminated water pipes fixed, and broadband put in rural areas without reliable internet connections.
In short, if (and this is a big if) Democrats can strike the difficult balance of working with Trump to get infrastructure done while also not letting him off the hook with oversight, they can tout themselves as the party of responsible governing and getting things done. That would be more than Republicans could say for their tenure of one-party control from 2016 to 2018, when the GOP couldn’t agree on the much skimpier infrastructure plan Trump introduced.
Striking such an agreement with Trump might enrage the left flank of the Democratic Party, but leadership is betting it will satisfy many more independent and moderate voters ahead of 2020.
“We are here to do something for the American people,” Pelosi said. “We cannot ignore the needs of the American people as we go forward.”
The $2 trillion question: how to pay for a “big and bold” infrastructure package
Democrats seemed pleasantly surprised that Trump agreed to a $2 trillion investment in infrastructure so readily (although it’s worth noting Sanders did not confirm this number in her press release).
Trump agreeing to the $2 trillion figure would indeed be a big deal. That’s double the $1 trillion plan he touted when he ran for president in 2016, and it’s far more massive than the relatively small $200 billion plan his White House actually introduced in February 2018.
That plan was controversial even among Republicans because of the small amount of federal money it would have put towards the nation’s infrastructure, expecting the rest to be made up by state and local officials. Trump’s former top infrastructure official, DJ Gribbin, told Vox it was a more sensible reallocation of federal dollars, but Gribbin didn’t see the plan through. He left the administration in April 2018, just two months it was released.
“It was a nonstarter from the beginning, I’m not aware of a single Republican legislator who supported that proposal,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, who panned Gribbin’s proposal as a “thought paper.”
Trump also heaped scorn on his administration’s past proposal at Tuesday’s meeting with Democrats, according to the Democratic soucre.
“That was a Gary [Cohn] bill,” Trump said, referring to his former chief economic advisor. “That bill was so stupid.”
To get the money, especially $2 trillion, Trump and Democrats are going to have to come up with new revenue streams — and that will likely mean increasing taxes in some way. Past infrastructure packages have been funded through raising the gas and diesel taxes, which now-retired Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, the former chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called on Congress to do in 2017.
Senate Democrats have another idea: a proposal to raise the corporate tax rate to 25 percent and reverse a number of tax cuts Republicans had passed as part of their massive 2017 tax bill. The basic idea is for corporations to pay more to fund infrastructure, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear he’s not on board.
As Vox’s Li Zhou and Tara Golshan wrote, Democrats want to use this infrastructure push to try to reverse of Trump and the GOP’s tax cuts, and divert that money back into roads and bridges.
This time around, the payment mechanism for the infrastructure plan is already emerging as a very strict non-negotiable for Democrats. “Unless President Trump considers undoing some of the 2017 tax cuts for the wealthy, Schumer won’t even consider a proposal from the president to raise the gas tax, of which the poor and working people would bear the brunt,” a source close to Schumer said.
That could be another fight of monumental proportions.