An agreement between congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump to pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure package could be short-lived if the president walks back his position or if the parties fail to agree on how to pay for it.
Both are familiar scenarios and ones lawmakers in both parties acknowledge could nullify the agreement top congressional Democrats say they reached with Trump during a White House meeting meeting Tuesday.
“Everybody knows the President tends to be flexible in changing his mind. And so we’ll see,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, one of the Democrats who participated in the meeting, said Wednesday when asked if he thinks the agreement to spend $2 trillion will hold.
“But having said that, I want to emphasize — and you saw, I think, many people were surprised — I think everybody left with a relatively positive attitude,” the Maryland Democrat added. “There have been other meetings that all of you know about that weren’t nearly as positive.”
Indeed, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer emerged from the White House meeting, flanked by leaders of their respective Democratic caucuses, upbeat. They quickly announced to reporters gathered outside the White House that Trump not only agreed to spend $2 trillion, he was the one to suggest that amount.
Pelosi had previously told reporters during House Democrats’ annual retreat last month that an infrastructure package should be a minimum of $1 trillion but that she’d prefer $2 trillion.
“I like the number you’ve been using, Nancy — $2 trillion,” Trump told her Tuesday, according to a senior Democratic aide. “$2 trillion. That number you can talk about.”
Democrats were quick to take that advice and talk up the $2 trillion number. But notably, Trump has not.
At press time the president had not tweeted about the figure or anything on infrastructure since his meeting with Democrats. His aides have also declined to commit the White House to spending $2 trillion in federal funds on infrastructure projects.
A fraught history
Democrats know all too well that Trump can tell them one thing to sound cooperative and agreeable during a meeting, only to walk it back later.
The most notable incident they often point to is a September 2017 dinner in which Pelosi and Schumer claim Trump agreed to codify the temporary Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children in exchange for some border security measures, excluding a wall. Trump quickly denied striking such a deal, and in the time since, a DACA-border security trade-off has proved elusive.
That’s far from the only time Trump told Democrats he was on board with something but never followed through. The president said during a televised meeting with lawmakers in February 2018 on gun safety that he’d support a ban on assault weapons but later walked that back to raising the age to purchase such weapons to 21 — a policy he never put any real weight behind.
With that history, it’s no surprise Democrats are wary about Trump’s ability to follow through on the $2 trillion infrastructure.
Hoyer and Ways and Means member Ron Kind, D-Wis., both cited a phrase former President Ronald Reagan often used: “Trust but verify.“
Transportation and Infrastructure member Sean Patrick Maloney offered another idiom.
“Actions speak louder than words,” the New York Democrat said.
And Ways and Means member Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said he’s “hopeful but cautious,” as Trump “seems to be a man of his last word.”
The last time the president struck a deal directly with congressional Democrats that ended up signed into law was a September 2017 agreement on suspending the debt limit. Democrats pushed for a three-month extension while Republicans advocated for a longer lift. Trump sided with Democrats, who were then in the minority in both chambers, and pressured Republicans into backing the deal.
Democrats seem to be hoping for a repeat of that scenario, saying it’s incumbent upon the president to figure out how to pay for the $2 trillion infrastructure package and then get his party to back it.
“Until he takes a leadership position and makes a proposal about where that revenue will come from to give cover to some Republicans here to vote for it, we won’t get anything done,” Doggett said.
“I think Democrats will be reluctant to put out a substantial revenue increase and then be blamed as Kevin McCarthy did against every Democrat from dog catcher to governor in California when Democrats there acted on the state level,” the Texas Democrat added, referring to the GOP leader’s opposition to his home state increasing the gas tax. “So we’re going to have to go hand in hand.”
Tuesday’s White House meeting included little discussion about ways to pay for the infrastructure package, but the negotiators agreed to meet again within three weeks to discuss that. Pelosi and Schumer said it’s up to Trump to present them a plan.
Pelosi told reporters Thursday that she’s spoken to Trump since the meeting and he said he was working on identifying ways to pay for it that would be acceptable to him. She also said that the infrastructure package should be funded 80 percent by the federal government and 20 percent by localities, meaning only $1.6 trillion in revenue would be needed to offset the federal spending.
Most lawmakers refused to characterize Tuesday’s discussion of a $2 trillion package as a deal until a consensus on paying for it emerges.
“We don’t have an agreement,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said. “Until we have a mechanism to actually fund the infrastructure, we can’t do what they talked about.”
Kind said agreed, saying, “It’s more like a conceptualization than an agreement. We still have to find sustainable revenue sources, and that’s the hard part.”
A pledge most congressional Republicans have taken not to raise taxes has proved an unmountable obstacle in past efforts to put together a sizable infrastructure package, Kind said, noting Trump is capable of providing the GOP cover on that if he chooses.
“I don’t think they should expect us to stick our neck out on some revenue proposal and we have our head lobbed off,” the Wisconsin Democrat said. “So this is something that we’re going to have to lock arms together on and jump into the icy waters on.”
Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio acknowledged the hesitation in both parties to go first on suggesting a revenue source. The Oregon Democrat suggested during the White House meeting that once the two sides reach agreement behind closed doors, they announce it publicly together.
“The president is absolutely critical in bringing Republicans on,” DeFazio said. “I’ve had a number of Republicans on our side of the Hill say, ‘If the president supports revenues, I’ll support revenues.’ He can give a lot of cover to the Republicans, but he doesn’t have to go it alone.”
Republican leaders, who did not participate in Tuesday’s meeting, have not yet endorsed the $2 trillion figure. Several sowed doubt about the possibility of offsetting that much spending and quickly nixed the idea of any tax increases.
“We’ve heard Pelosi and Schumer in the past talking about all kinds of tax increases, and that’s not going to happen,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said. “We haven’t seen them come anywhere close to $2 trillion in monies in other places that we could reprioritize. So how you pay for it is going to be a driving force in whatever we do.”
Trump’s willingness to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure came the same day that Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady, R-Texas, delivered a message about the need to address runaway entitlement spending. And on Wednesday the Republican Study Committee sought to highlight Washington’s spending problem with a new proposal to balance the budget in six years along with a $12.6 trillion cut in discretionary spending.
“I would refer you to the president in those discussions there,” Brady said when asked if Trump’s agreement undercut House Republicans’ messaging on spending.
The Texas Republican did not outright reject the $2 trillion figure but said attempts to pay for it with a gas tax increase would be met with “very strong political resistance.” And reversing some of the tax cuts from Republicans’ 2017 law, as Schumer has floated, “is DOA,” he said.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, a close confidant of Trump’s and member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, suggested the president’s agreement with Democrats is conditional.
“I think the president is all for spending $2 trillion if we can do it in a financially and fiscally conservative manner,” the North Carolina Republican said.
Meadows, who said Trump has tasked him and a few other Republicans with exploring ways to finance the $2 trillion package, is ruling out tax increases.
“Being a party that reduced taxes, I don’t know that increasing taxes in an election year would have a great result, other than if you’re looking for results similar to George H.W. Bush,” he said, referring to the last president to lose a bid for a second term.
Doug Sword and Elvina Nawaguna contributed to this report.