WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump told Democratic congressional leaders on the eve of a White House meeting to discuss restoring the nation’s infrastructure that he first wanted them to pass his replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Before we get to infrastructure, it is my strong view that Congress should first pass the important and popular USMCA trade deal,” Trump wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday. “It will replace the job-killing Nafta, one of the worst trade deals ever entered into by our nation.”
“Once Congress has passed USMCA,” Trump continued, “we should turn our attention to a bipartisan infrastructure package.”
The White House, which this week removed steel and aluminium tariffs imposed on Canada and Mexico a year ago, wants to build momentum to pass the accord, a major goal of the president as his re-election campaign gets underway.
Pelosi has said that she wants to support the deal, but has demanded changes that would strengthen labour and environmental protections and ensure enforcement of the agreement.
The White House session on Wednesday was scheduled after Trump, Pelosi and Schumer met on April 30 to discuss an infrastructure plan.
Schumer and Pelosi said that Trump had agreed to a US$2 trillion goal to rebuild US public works but that it was up to the White House to come up with a way to pay for it.
But Trump, in the letter on Tuesday, suggested that he expected the Democrats to do just that.
“It would be helpful if you came to tomorrow’s meeting with your infrastructure priorities and specifics regarding how much funding you would dedicate to each,” he said.
“Your caucus has expressed a wide range of priorities, and it is unclear which ones have your support. I had hoped that we could have worked out these priorities following our last meeting, but you cancelled a scheduled meeting of our teams, preventing them from advancing our discussions.”
Pelosi said last week that she wants any initiative to include more than just roads and bridges, but also transit systems, rural broadband, water systems, and even schools and housing.
The offices of Pelosi and Schumer did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday night.
The speaker is dealing with the politics of her members who want to get something done on infrastructure – a key plank in the party’s successful campaign to recapture the House in last year’s midterms – without giving Trump a political victory on one of his signature campaign issues ahead of his re-election bid.
That tension is reflected in the game of chicken that has emerged over how to pay for a US$2 trillion infrastructure plan, with neither side wanting to be the first to publicly commit to raising federal fuel taxes or other controversial funding options.
“The next move is the president’s,” Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters. “My hope is he won’t disappoint.’’
Trump, however, has said he’s concerned about “being played” by Democrats trying to bait him into publicly backing a tax increase, only to have them use it against him politically.
“I think what they want me to do is say, ‘Well, what we’ll do is raise taxes and we’ll do this and this and this,’’’ Trump said May 19 on Fox News. “And then they’ll have a news conference, ‘See? Trump wants to raise taxes.’ So it’s little bit of a game.’’
The exchanges have left some advocates worried that both sides just want the ability to blame the other if the effort fails. They say the only path to success is for both sides to agree on key elements and announce them together.
Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, insists that any public works legislation include the Gateway commuter rail tunnel project under the Hudson River.
That has been embroiled in a dispute over funding with the Trump administration, which says the federal government cannot devote too much money to it at the expense of other projects.
The politics of the infrastructure proposals are difficult because while there are different ways to finance a public-works bill, the US Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO and other advocates have concluded that raising federal fuel taxes for the first time since 1993 must be part of the mix to generate enough revenue in the short term.
“I just don’t see other real, viable alternatives that gets you toward that number,” said Chris Spear, president and chief executive officer of the American Trucking Associations, which supports a fuel-tax increase to raise US$340 billion over a decade.
“Do your job and vote and get this done for the American people, or face the music in the next election.’’
Still, Republican leaders in Congress flatly reject raising levies or rolling back some of the 2017 tax cuts in tandem – as Schumer and other Democrats have proposed – and some leading Democrats also object to the disproportionate impact a gas-tax increase has on low-income residents.
The Trump administration hasn’t ruled out increasing the gas tax, but the idea has little support.