WASHINGTON – The White House is preparing to roll out a long-delayed infrastructure rebuilding plan in January, as President Donald Trump's advisers bet that voters want a $1 trillion road-and-bridge-building plan -- even though it is opposed by some lawmakers.
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Mr. Trump's advisers are putting finishing touches on a plan to direct federal spending of $200 billion or more -- funds it would propose to offset with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget -- to leverage hundreds of billions more from local governments and private investors to pay for road, rail, water and utility upgrades.
White House officials have said for months they hoped to turn to infrastructure once Congress has enacted an overhaul of the tax code, which has occupied the Republican establishment and its business allies for the past several months. More recently, Republicans have signaled they plan to focus on another posttax priority, a revamp of the nation's welfare system. They also hope to revisit a repeal of the Affordable Care Act next year.
Big legislation can be more difficult in an election year, but Mr. Trump's political advisers say they believe they have public support. That runs counter to widespread doubts in Washington that Congress will want to craft a major spending initiative on the heels of a tax package that could raise the deficit by more than $1 trillion.
The polling, shared with the White House recently, shows majority support for an investment in infrastructure among groups that have favored Mr. Trump, like white men without college degrees. But the issue also polls well among groups that disapprove of Mr. Trump's performance. Fifty-two percent of voters who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 back an infrastructure program, according to the survey. Some 53% of white male respondents in states won by Mrs. Clinton support an infrastructure initiative, as well as 51% of voters who say they disapprove of the job Mr. Trump is doing as president.
"Infrastructure is an issue through which we can move people into the president's job approval column and win support for future policy initiatives," deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said.
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First, though, the administration will have to get a bill past lawmakers resistant to the administration's proposal. They include GOP spending hawks, moderate Republicans who rejected many of the administration's proposed budget cuts this spring and Democrats who want any infrastructure improvements to be paid for directly by the federal government.
"Democrats have been crystal clear that they want the federal government to make major, direct investments in infrastructure, not slashing proven programs or relying on private companies who would pass the costs onto middle-class Americans," a Senate Democratic aide said.
Republicans have been equally skeptical of some other budget moves that could bode ill for the administration's plans to find $200 billion worth of cuts. A Senate subcommittee undid many of the administration's proposed reductions to highway and rail funding programs in July, for instance. At the time, Sen. Susan Collins, (R., Maine), was captured by hearing room microphones telling a colleague the cuts had been proposed with "no measurement, no thinking about it, no metrics, no nothing."
"It's just incredibly irresponsible," Ms. Collins said. An aide at the time confirmed the accuracy of the remarks.
In the White House, advisers have worked for months to craft a series of "principles" for the infrastructure push -- now dozens of pages long -- that will be transmitted to Congress in January. That will mark the beginning of "a multi-month conversation" with lawmakers in both parties, a White House official said.
The infrastructure package was further complicated by the passage of the House and Senate tax cut bills, the senior White House official acknowledged. The tax bills close off one alternative option for funding, because revenue from a one-time tax on foreign corporate profits will be used to lower rates, not to fund a building plan.
The House bill also eliminates the tax advantage of so-called private activity bonds, tax-free bonds that are common in public-private partnership deals of the type the administration hopes will be used to build and repair assets like highways, bridges and airports.
The administration is still hoping lawmakers will preserve private activity bonds, perhaps by narrowly targeting them for infrastructure uses, when they settle on a final version of the tax reform bill, the official said. And achieving an overhaul of the tax code was a greater priority for the administration.
The official said the White House has tried to leave open avenues that could lead to a deal, especially since the administration will need Democratic votes to get a package through the Senate. Those talks are likely to include some negotiations on funding for major individual projects.
The administration hasn't ruled out a federal gas tax increase, for instance, something some business leaders suggested during the early days of Mr. Trump's term. However, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D., N.Y.), has said he would oppose such an increase.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 10, 2017 08:14 ET (13:14 GMT)