Senate Republicans Cast Doubt on Trump's Public Works Plan

(Bloomberg) -- The Senate’s No. 2 Republican cast doubt on whether Congress will be able to enact President Donald Trump’s plan to upgrade U.S. public works this year, raising questions about whether a top administration priority will be done before the November elections.

“It will be challenging,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas said in an interview Tuesday. “I certainly would be happy if we could, but we’ve got a lot of things to do, that being one of them, and I don’t know if we will have time to get to that.”

The White House said Trump expects Congress to act on the president’s proposal.

“The president presented his infrastructure outline earlier this month and has charged Congress with moving as quickly as possible to rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, an issue that 84 percent of Americans consider a top priority,” deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said.

Cornyn’s comments come two days before the first congressional hearing on Trump’s plan, when Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is set to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The White House released Trump’s long-awaited infrastructure proposal on Feb. 12, a 53-page document meant to be the outline for legislation and the starting point for negotiations with lawmakers on the details.

John Barrasso of Wyoming, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, “continues to work on robust, fiscally responsible infrastructure legislation,” spokesman Mike Danylak said. The committee has already held 10 hearings in infrastructure issues, he added.

Recognizing that there are challenges to passing any major legislation, Representative Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, thinks the House can get a bill completed this year, spokesman Justin Harclerode said.

Asked about Cornyn’s comment that the Senate may not have enough time, Republican Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina quipped, “They may need to get in two or three naps between now and then.”

“Going home at this point and saying there is not enough time between now and November to do an infrastructure bill may not be the best message,” Meadows said.

Finding Funding

But one of the questions being asked among Republicans is how to pay for the plan, which comes on the heels of passage of $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts, said Louisiana Republican Senator John Kennedy. Congress also has approved almost $300 billion in extra federal spending over two years, and the combination may balloon the deficit next year to as much as $1 trillion.

“That’s the sticking point,” Kennedy said in an interview. “Everybody’s for infrastructure, but the question becomes where are you going to get the money. There hasn’t been a viable plan put on the table yet.”

The premise of Trump’s plan is that the government would spend $200 billion to spur states, localities and the private sector to raise the $1.3 trillion balance that would be used to upgrade roads, airports and other public works.

Congress still has to complete and vote on a budget package by March 23, and the House and Senate have been tied up by debates on immigration and guns without a resolution. Lawmakers also will be turning attention to their re-election campaigns before the November congressional elections, which will decide control of Congress.

“I hope he’s wrong,” Senator Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said regarding Cornyn’s comment. “The president has talked so much about infrastructure, transportation, broadband deployment, water-sewer, if we can’t figure out a path forward on this, shame on the president, shame on the administration, shame on the Congress.”

Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who leads the Senate Commerce Committee, also threw cold water on the prospect an infrastructure package this year.

“It could be challenging to get an infrastructure bill done in light of everything else we have to do,” Thune said. How to pay for the legislation, “that’s a big problem,” he added.

Even so, Congress has been able to defy predictions of failure with previous public works measures, said Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“Any time you work on a big, bipartisan bill it will be challenging, but you can’t write it off because of that,” Inhofe said in a statement. “There is a bipartisan desire to get infrastructure done and we’ve started the work to do it.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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