The White House may be pushing back the release of its long-awaited infrastructure package yet again, just a month after saying it would come out by the end of January.
A White House official said Tuesday that there have been “no decisions yet on timing” for the release. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) separately told POLITICO — after a meeting with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and other officials — that administration officials are still deciding whether to publish legislative principles for the plan before or after the president’s State of the Union address Jan. 30.
A White House spokeswoman did not immediately comment Tuesday.
It’s unclear whether this represents a major snag for the infrastructure plan, which Trump’s aides have talked up as a big priority for 2018. The plan — aimed at creating as much as $1 trillion in federal, state and private spending — could also be another big win for Trump on the heels of December’s tax overhaul, the president’s supporters hope.
Trump’s advisers have told him that pursuing an infrastructure bill will give Republicans the best chance of holding onto the House because the prospect of building new roads and bridges has broad appeal with the electorate.
But congressional Democrats have expressed skepticism about Trump’s approach, especially given the administration’s signals that it will come with relatively little new federal spending and will attempt to unroll a host of regulatory requirements for transportation projects. And Trump himself has expressed misgivings about the package’s expected incentives for government partnerships with private investors — most recently during a huddle last weekend with congressional leaders at Camp David, The Washington Post reported Sunday.
Trump has been raising similar concerns for weeks in private conversations with lawmakers and his advisers, according to people familiar with the conversations.
D.J. Gribbin, the president's special assistant for infrastructure policy, refused to give specifics on the timing of the plan’s release when reporters pressed him Tuesday, following the meeting with Cardin and other lawmakers. Besides Chao, the meeting also included members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
A White House official had told POLITICO in early December that Trump intended to send "a detailed infrastructure principles document" to Congress sometime in January. Even that was later than what Chao had predicted last spring, when she told Fox News that “the legislative proposal will probably be tackled by the Congress in the third quarter” of 2017.
More recently, the White House has decided to focus largely on infrastructure in the coming months, administration officials have said — setting aside for now a bid to make sweeping changes to the country’s welfare programs, a top priority for House Speaker Paul Ryan. That decision came after weeks of internal debate about the administration’s legislative priorities.
Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said Tuesday’s meeting was less about specifics of the infrastructure plan and more about face time about the plan with the administration, which he called "helpful."
"I don't know that I learned a lot," Carper said. "I just think there's value in sitting down and talking."
The plan is expected to call for as much as $200 billion in federal spending over the next decade, with the rest coming from private investment, state or local funding and cuts to other federal programs. An administration official has told POLITICO that a wide variety of projects would have to compete for federal assistance, ranging from roads, railroads, bridges and tunnels to rural broadband or veterans’ hospitals — and that communities hoping for money from Washington will have to be prepared to put up their own cash.
At the same time, the White House has proposed budget cuts for some existing federal transportation programs. And the Department of Transportation told New York and New Jersey late last month not to expect the federal government to pay half of the $13 billion cost of building a new tunnel under the Hudson River — despite earlier promises to that effect from the Obama administration.
Both developments have increased Democrats’ consternation about Trump’s infrastructure plan.
Cardin said the administration officials went over their proposal Tuesday but left many of the details unfilled.
“I think we have an understanding [of] the framework they’re working under,” Cardin said. “What we don’t have is specifics. What we don’t have is how it adds up. And I think the plea that we’re making is let’s have a real, open process, but recognize you've got to have the money.”
Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.