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Trump pushes $2 trillion infrastructure package in next coronavirus bill

By JEFF STEIN AND SEUNG MIN KIM | The Washington Post | Published: March 31, 2020

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that a $2 trillion infrastructure package should be part of Congress’ next response to the coronavirus pandemic, reviving a 2016 campaign pledge to ramp up construction projects despite public health guidance that Americans should stay home and isolated to the greatest extent possible.

Citing extraordinarily low interest rates that have reduced the cost of federal borrowing, Trump said on Twitter that now “is the time” to push forward with an infrastructure package in response to the severe economic downturn caused by the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. Numerous House Democrats have also discussed in recent weeks advancing infrastructure legislation as part of their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country! Phase 4.”

But for more than three years now, lawmakers have failed to break meaningful ground on bipartisan infrastructure talks, making the issue something of a long-standing joke on Capitol Hill. Some experts pointed out that a pandemic might be a poor time to ramp up construction projects, given that federal health officials are urging workers to stay home if possible and to avoid personal contact.

His “Phase 4” comment refers to the fact that Congress has passed three bills in response to problems created by the outbreak of the coronavirus, with the most recent law enacted on Friday. That law directs more than $2 trillion in spending for emergency assistance to companies, new $1,200 payments to millions of Americans, assistance for airlines, state unemployment programs and a host of other groups.

The president offered no additional specifics about his infrastructure idea, and a White House spokesman did not respond immediately to a request for more details.

On Tuesday morning, shortly before the tweet, Trump spoke with Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., about the need for a massive, $2 trillion package that would include revamping the nation’s roads, bridges, tunnels and ports, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

Barrasso, the third-ranking Senate Republican, also chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works, which unanimously cleared a highway bill last year that greenlights $287 billion in infrastructure spending over five years and is the most substantial legislation of its kind in history.

But Trump’s vision of an infrastructure measure would build on that highway bill, according to the person familiar with the call with Barrasso, and its mission would be to “renovate and rebuild America while putting America back to work.”

Trump, who had called Barrasso, told the Wyoming senator and close ally that he wanted him very involved in the infrastructure effort, the person said.

Congressional Democrats are already at work on the next effort and discussions have begun on what it might include.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., stepped up talks on an infrastructure deal in February, but those negotiations were derailed by the widening impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Public health experts have called for Americans to self-isolate, and numerous states have issued stay-at-home orders urging all but essential personnel to remain in their homes. Infrastructure talks largely have centered on providing hundreds of billions of dollars for maintenance and repair work on the nation’s roads, bridges and other decaying infrastructure — all of which probably would require workers to be in close contact with one another.

“I’ve been making this point for years now: He’s correct,” said Jared Bernstein, former economic adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, about Trump’s argument about the potential to use low interest rates to fund a large infrastructure bill. “But we have to be realistic about how infrastructure fits into the nature of the current crisis.”

That issue might not be impossible to resolve. Congress should pass an infrastructure package now to capitalize on the political crisis and low interest rates, but construction projects should not begin until quarantines are lifted, said Peter Gowan, an economic expert at the left-leaning Democracy Collaborative.

Other outstanding fissures might still be difficult for lawmakers to overcome. Senate Republicans have balked at raising taxes as part of an infrastructure deal, a key sticking point in previous negotiations, and it is unclear whether conservatives are willing to spend more money beyond the large deals already signed into law. Senior Republicans also have been reticent to embark on a big-spending, “Phase 4” bill to boost the flagging economy, wanting to gauge the effects of the $2.2 trillion package signed into law last week before any next moves. Trump’s reference to low interest rates on Tuesday suggested he is in favor of borrowing heavily to finance new projects, which probably would add to the government’s debt.

During his campaign four years ago, Trump promised a $1 trillion infrastructure package he said would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and would rebuild roads, bridges, ports and airports, among other things. But White House officials could not reach agreement among themselves over how to finance such a package.

Congressional Democrats have long been skeptical of the seriousness behind Trump’s attempts at an infrastructure deal. Both sides have disagreed sharply about what projects should be included in an infrastructure bill, with conservatives rejecting Democratic efforts to include clean-energy projects and other provisions aimed at mitigating climate change in their legislation.

“We all make the jokes about it, but the problem is infrastructure is an empty-vessel term that means different things to different people,” said Ryan Ellis, a conservative tax expert. “You can talk to 10 people around town, and you may get 10 different emphases for what that means and what the definition of it is.”

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