Democrats' $1 trillion infrastructure plan: A political bridge to Trump?

The infrastructure bill may be an effort to work with Trump, who has pushed for infrastructure investment. But whether it succeeds or fails, the bill may still prove important for reestablishing Democrats' values.

J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters
President Trump shakes hands with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, as he is joined by the congressional leadership and his family while he formally signs his cabinet nominations into law, at the Capitol in Washington on Friday. Senator Schumer and other senior Senate Democrats proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill on Tuesday.

President Trump and Senate Democrats may have found common ground on infrastructure. But can they bring Congressional Republicans along for the ride?

On Tuesday, Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York, joined by senior Democrats and former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, introduced a $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill. The bill includes funding for infrastructure upgrades in schools and veterans’ hospitals, updates to the aging electricity grid, and expansions of the transportation network, projects that Democrats say could lead to creation of as many as 15 million jobs.

During the presidential election campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly pledged to create jobs, in part with a massive investment in infrastructure. The bill may be an effort to work with Trump on an area where there is consensus between the president and Democrats. But even if the bill fails – as some experts expect – it may still prove important for reestablishing party values.

Democrats hope this plan will serve not only as a bridge to Trump – who pledged a similar $1 trillion in infrastructure investment during the campaign – but also to the party's historical base of blue-collar voters, who may have felt alienated during the 2016 election.

Aging infrastructure, and a lack of investment, is costing the average American family $3400 per year, says Brian Pallasch, senior managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives at the American Society of Civil Engineers, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. These “hidden costs” appear in many forms, including traffic slowdowns, crumbling schools, public transit that doesn’t serve enough people, and water mains that break.

An investment on the order of $1 trillion would “make a pretty significant difference,” Mr. Pallasch says, adding that it would enhance public safety and benefit the economy.

“The federal government has not committed that level of resources for quite some time,” he notes.

Democrats have long encouraged infrastructure investment as a way to create jobs and improve productivity. Then-President Barack Obama championed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which contained a substantial infrastructure component, to speed economic recovery following the Great Recession. But later efforts to invest in infrastructure languished in Congress, with Republicans citing concerns these investments would balloon the budget.

"We're challenging the president – he talked about it in his campaign – to join us in this, and if he does, we'll work with him,” Senator Schumer told USA Today, later adding, ”We Democrats have always believed in this.”

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to keep jobs at home, with infrastructure investment a cornerstone of that plan. In his inaugural address, he reiterated that commitment.

“We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation,” Trump said.

Since the election, Trump has also repeatedly expressed a desire to bring the country together and end the partisanship that dominated the campaign. Could infrastructure become a bipartisan issue, bridging the divides in the new Congress?

Not without the support of the Republican majority in the Senate, says Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute in Washington.

Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky gets to decide which bills come up for a vote, he explains in an interview with the Monitor. Not only is McConnell unlikely to choose to debate a bill proposed by the Senate minority, but he is also – like many Republicans – generally opposed to big government spending, even when it would benefit his state.

In the end, Trump may persuade Republicans to fall in line on infrastructure, Trump adviser Richard LeFrak indicated on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Monday.

I think he will prevail, ultimately, because he wants to put people to work,” Mr. LeFrak said, though he expects a “tug of war” between fiscal conservatives and the president before this happens.

But though infrastructure appeared in Trump’s inaugural address – usually a sign of the incoming president’s priorities – it will likely not come up for discussion this year, if at all, Dr. Huder says.

“This Congress … has got a lot to chew on,” Huder says, pointing to efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, confirmation hearings for Trump’s nominees, and discussion of the 2018 budget. “All these priorities are going to have to find time on the Senate floor.”

And Democrats aren’t likely to make those debates easy, Huder adds. “They’re going to push debate as long as they can.”

Any infrastructure bill, then, is more likely to languish in Congress than become a basis for bipartisan cooperation. But it may send an early signal that cooperation is possible in the future, with Democrats making a preemptive attempt to determine the shape of any future infrastructure bill. “If Trump wants to get an infrastructure bill, it has to have some of these provisions,” Huder says.

It may also help shape a contentious point regarding infrastructure upgrades: who’s paying for them. The Democrats’ suggestion that funds should be appropriated by Congress stands in contrast to Trump’s plans for public-private partnerships and tax cuts. Ultimately, Pallasch says, all of these will be necessary.

“We’ve never seen this as a completely federal responsibility,” he explains, noting that state and local government, as well as public-private partnerships, have a role to play in improving infrastructure.

Whether it succeeds or fails, the bill may also signal to Democrats that their values are alive and well. Hillary Clinton’s loss in November has spurred soul-searching within the party, which now finds itself in the minority in both chambers.

“There does need to be a strategy to reach out to these rural and blue-collar white voters,” Tom Bonier, chief executive officer of TargetSmart, a Democratic data and polling firm, told Politico in November. Those votes went heavily to Trump in November.

Refocusing on historically Democratic issues like job creation and infrastructure may be a way to win back support from voters who felt alienated, Schumer suggested in an interview after Trump’s win.

“It’s my view that the Democratic aspects of [Trump’s] economic program ... brought the blue-collar vote to him, more than anything else,” he told the Washington Post.

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