President Donald Trump, looking ahead to a critical election year where his record will be on the ballot alongside Republican lawmakers, plans a major push on infrastructure in January, aides said this week.
Before decamping to his Florida estate for the holiday, Trump predicted his effort to repair the country’s roads, airports and bridges would garner bipartisan support with ease.
But his plan of winning over Democrats — critical to passing such a spending package — remains a long shot, given the President’s own divisive politics, the details of his proposal and the pending midterm election.
Despite promising a $1 trillion infrastructure bill during the campaign, Trump’s plan is shaping up differently. A White House official said on Tuesday the current proposal — set to be unveiled in the middle of January — would propose spending at least $200 billion on infrastructure projects over the next decade, with the hopes of spurring an additional $800 billion in state and local funding.
Some Democrats and business groups have said that $200 billion is too low. But the White House official characterized the figure as a floor, not a ceiling, and said Trump is willing to spend more federal dollars if it means getting a package through Congress.
Looming midterm election
Wooing Democrats on infrastructure, however, will likely require more than just a spending increase. Historically unpopular months before a critical election, Trump will need to convince members of the opposing party to work with him just as they prepare to face voters.
That’s a problem for Trump, who will return to Washington to find Republicans with a slim one-vote majority in the Senate after Democrat Doug Jones unexpectedly defeated Republican Roy Moore in Alabama earlier this month. In order to pass an infrastructure bill this year, Trump will need 60 votes, making it impossible to do without some Democratic support.
Even still, top White House aides have pledged infrastructure will be their primary focus as the calendar turns to 2018.
Trump’s top legislative aide, Marc Short, said Sunday that the President hopes to unveil an infrastructure plan in January and plans to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan at Camp David the first weekend in the month to “make sure we’re all on the same page about what our priorities are for 2018.”
The White House expects to hold additional meetings to finalize the infrastructure plan in the days leading up to the Camp David talks.
Trump himself teased possible action on infrastructure before leaving Washington for the last time in 2017 and heading to Florida for a prolonged vacation at Mar-a-Lago, his South Florida private club.
“I really believe infrastructure can be bipartisan,” Trump said from the Oval Office earlier this month. “People want it, Republicans and Democrats.”
Trump’s comments came in the afterglow of his successful effort to rewrite the nation’s tax laws, a bill that Trump touted as something that could garner bipartisan support earlier this year but ended up being passed along party lines.
Infrastructure has historically proven more fertile ground for bipartisanship than taxes, and White House officials have suggested that few politicians would oppose a plan to fix the country’s crumbling public works.
“Everyone recognizes this is a problem,” one administration official said this week.
The White House has been workshopping ideas to include in their proposal with Democrats and Republicans alike for months, including with members of Congress.
The plan the President is expected to announce in January won’t be a formal piece of legislation, officials said. Instead, it will provide the administration’s principles for infrastructure reform that lawmakers can then craft into a bill.
In addition to the spending, the White House will propose altering federal permitting processes, hoping to reduce the time it takes to complete projects. The White House says it has consulted with various agencies who handle building permits over the past weeks to gather input.
By the time Trump delivers his first State of the Union address on January 30, aides hope the proposal will have gained traction among lawmakers. Like presidents before him, Trump is planning to travel around the country selling aspects of his speech, including possible events at structures in need of repair.
A real estate tycoon and builder, Trump is “naturally interested” in infrastructure reform, an aide said on Tuesday. During the 2016 campaign — in an effort to woo working class voters whose employers would benefit from a concerted infrastructure push — Trump promised a $1 trillion infrastructure plan within his first 100 days in office. The effort was put off amid legislative battles over heath care and tax reform.
“I actually wanted to save the easy one for the one down the road,” Trump said earlier this month from the Oval Office, when asked why he didn’t start his legislative agenda with an infrastructure plan.
In his first presidential budget, Trump proposed allocating the $200 billion over 10 years for infrastructure projects. But an analysis by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Budget Model, a nonpartisan research organization, found that Trump’s budget cut infrastructure spending overall by $55 billion by slashing programs that write grants for highway renovation, Native American water facilities and rural airports.
At the time, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Trump’s infrastructure campaign promises “are crumbling faster than our roads and bridges.”
Publicly, most Democrats have remained open to working with Trump on an infrastructure package. But Trump’s historically low approval rating could hamper efforts at bipartisanship.
According to a CNN poll, just 35% of Americans approve of Trump, meaning it is not politically risky for Democrats to stand opposed to the President.
Additionally, the base of the Democratic Party is unified around their opposition of Trump. According to the CNN poll, 93% of Democrats disapprove of Trump’s handling of the job, meaning any Democrat who steps out to work with the President is taking a political risk.
White House officials hope that Democrats running for reelection in states the President won in 2016 — Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Jon Tester in Montana — will be more likely to go along on infrastructure reform during a midterm election year.
But Trump said the same about tax reform and all those Democrats stood uniformly against the plan, feeling it was safer to stand against Trump than stand with him.
Trump has tried to goad Democrats into backing him on infrastructure.
“At some point, and for the good of the country, I predict we will start working with the Democrats in a Bipartisan fashion,” Trump tweeted days before Christmas. “Infrastructure would be a perfect place to start. After having foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is time to start rebuilding our country!”
But, so far, Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been more willing to push their own $500 billion infrastructure plan — which they rolled out earlier this year.