WASHINGTON ― After going on a massive spending spree in the first two years of the Trump administration, Republicans say they’ve had enough red ink ― at least when it comes to overhauling the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and waterways.
“You want stuff? You gotta pay for it. I think that’s a conservative position,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 GOP senator, told reporters on Wednesday about discussions over a deal on new infrastructure spending.
Thune added that any package needs to be paid for via new revenue sources or offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget — a demand Republicans notably ditched in passing their $1.5 trillion tax cut into law.
Top House and Senate Democrats met with Trump at the White House on Tuesday and announced an agreement to advance a massive $2 trillion infrastructure package this year. The two sides did not discuss how the plan would be paid for and what level of direct federal spending it would include. Democrats said they were awaiting details from Trump in a follow-up meeting later this month.
Trump’s initial infrastructure proposal, unveiled in February 2018, sought to leverage just $200 billion in direct federal spending into nearly seven times that number by relying on state and local tax dollars as well as private investment. That plan stalled in Congress, however, due to opposition from the GOP and Trump himself, who reportedly disliked the plan’s reliance on private funding.
The challenge for lawmakers now, as in 2018, remains the question of financing. Democrats have floated rolling back some of the GOP’s tax cut law to pay for new instrastructure investment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rejected the idea as “a non-starter” on Tuesday, however.
Democrats and some Republicans have also called for an increase in the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. That proposal is supported by both the Chamber of Commerce, which recommends hiking the tax by 25 cents over five years, and Trump himself. The increase would generate an additional $375 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Chamber. But that idea, too, is sure to run into opposition from anti-tax conservatives.
“Not me,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said Wednesday when asked if he would support any new taxes to pay for infrastructure spending.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), another member of GOP leadership, meanwhile, said it might be easier to move an infrastructure package through Congress in multiple pieces of legislation.
“The more you start to throw together, the more reasons people find not to support it,” Ernst said at a town hall event in Iowa last week focusing on tariffs. She suggested lawmakers tackle funding for roads and bridges separately from other issues like access to broadband in rural America.
The cost of inaction is only growing due to worsening congestion and automobile maintenance expenses. In 2016, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that over the next decade, individual American households would lose $3,400 a year in disposable income due to deficient roads and bridges.
But while congressional Republicans are once again crowing about the national debt, top Trump officials at the White House argue that concern about the country’s spending is overblown. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, for example, told Politico this week that the country’s $22 trillion debt “does not appear to be holding us back.” He held a much different position while serving as a South Carolina congressman, however, when he repeatedly crusaded for budget cuts.