Trump Works Plan May Need Lame-Duck Session, Shuster Says

(Bloomberg) -- The leader of the House infrastructure panel said Wednesday it will be difficult to enact President Donald Trump’s plan to upgrade U.S. public works this year, and lawmakers may have to take it up in a lame-duck session after the November election.

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said he hopes to pass a bill before Congress leaves Washington for its August recess, and if not, an option may be to vote after the election.

“We haven’t passed anything in a lame-duck recently,” Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, told reporters after speaking at a conference held by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “Nothing is easy in Washington, D.C. ”

Shuster’s comments followed statements Tuesday by second-ranking Senate Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune of South Dakota casting doubt on whether the chamber will have time to pass a bill this year. The legislative process is just beginning as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is set to hold a hearing on Trump’s plan Thursday with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Chao spoke at the conference on Wednesday and touted the administration’s infrastructure proposal, but she didn’t address the timing of getting the plan through Congress. She mostly highlighted efforts to eliminate regulations and streamline permitting for projects.

A White House spokeswoman said Trump wants action as soon as possible.

Shuster said the Highway Trust Fund, which uses mostly federal gas taxes to help pay for road, bridge and transit projects, is set to become insolvent by 2021 without additional money. If no action is take to increase funding -- Shuster supports raising the gas tax for the first time since 1993 -- he said lawmakers will suffer politically if projects back home are stalled as a result.

‘Pay the Price’

“Republicans are going to be the ones that are going to pay the price at the polls, so we have to do something now, we’ve got to fix this,” Shuster said.

Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, chairman of the Senate environment committee who also spoke at the conference, would only say he was “committed to working to get it done” when asked whether he thinks a bill can pass this year.

Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the House transportation panel, said his position is “show me the money” regarding additional federal dollars for projects and that it will take Trump to force the issue.

“Unless Trump makes a very strong case and pushes the Republicans there will be no investment, and hence there will be no bill,” DeFazio said at the conference.

The White House released Trump’s long-awaited infrastructure plan 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.

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.

Many Hurdles

There are many hurdles to getting a major infrastructure bill enacted this year, especially with questions about how to pay for it, said Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

“We’re optimistic but trying to be realistic about it as well,” Wright said. “It’s going to be a tough road.”

Wright said if a comprehensive bill doesn’t pass this year, perhaps something can move that builds off the budget deal passed last year that added more money for infrastructure, or a measure to streamline the permit process.

Trump surprised a group of lawmakers on Feb. 14 by saying he would support a 25-cent-per-gallon increase in federal gasoline and diesel taxes. Some Republicans have downplayed those remarks, but White House officials have said the president hasn’t ruled out the option.

Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Trump suggested that a 25-cent increase could be enacted all at once. Trump said he’ll provide political cover for lawmakers to pass it, and Carper said Chao told him the president has been talking about it for weeks.

“If he’s serious about this, we might actually be able to get something done,” Carper said at the conference.

Even so, Republican leaders have said they don’t support raising the gas tax. Barrasso called it “a non-starter for me.”

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