Can Washington still compartmentalize, by shelving one issue while addressing another — in this case to give the often-discarded Infrastructure Week another try?
Before and after House Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton in 1998, the two sides found ways to negotiate and pass meaningful legislation. That included a tax code overhaul bill, a measure to fund U.S. operations in Kosovo and the Financial Services Modernization Act.
Congressional Democrats head Tuesday to the White House to talk about a possible agreement to begin substantive talks about an infrastructure package both sides claim to support. When lawmakers emerge from the Oval Office, the tone soon will be set for finding out whether Donald Trump can work with the very Democrats he paints as unhinged and obsessed with doing anything they can to take down his presidency.
In the days before the White House confab, neither end of Pennsylvania Avenue struck a very optimistic tone, even with a recent Pew Research poll finding that 62 percent of Americans support increased federal spending to upgrade the country’s roads, bridges, airports, tunnels and seaports.
One White House official acknowledged that any breakthrough Tuesday would be difficult “because they’ve been so helpful so far,” referring sarcastically to congressional Democrats.
A source close to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer told CQ Roll Call that the New York Democrat has some demands. “Unless President Trump considers undoing some of the 2017 tax cuts for the wealthy, Schumer won’t even consider a proposal from the president to raise the gas tax, of which the poor and working people would bear the brunt,” the source said.
Later in the day, Schumer took to the Senate floor to discuss the idea.
“By reversing only the most egregious giveaways in President Trump’s tax bill — those given to the wealthiest of the wealthy — and raising the corporate tax rate ... we could finance the entirety, the entirety, of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill,” he said.
G. William Hoagland of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who was an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, said any proposal to hike the gas tax “will not play well in the [agricultural] and red states” where the president remains popular.
“What is at stake here for both sides is simply with the charged environment surrounding subpoenas, testimonies, redacted Muller report, etc.,” he said. “Can those issues be set on a different track and the infrastructure track go forward to show the American public that Congress and the president can work together on this issue?”
Even while praising Democrats for agreeing to show up, some White House officials appeared unable to resist slipping a few jabs.
“We’re certainly hopeful that Democrats are ready to stop playing political games, and actually start doing their jobs,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday morning outside the West Wing. (Her last formal press briefing was March 11, only her second of the year with reporters.)
While she called the Tuesday meeting “a big step,” noting that Trump is “passionate” about infrastructure because he is a “builder,” she also dubbed House Democrats “childish.” Their intent to move ahead with their investigations after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found no criminal-level Trump campaign coordination with Russia and made no formal declaration on criminal-level obstruction of justice is “almost embarrassing,” said Sanders, whom the Mueller report cited as providing false statements to the press.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer were mostly upbeat in a letter they sent Trump on Monday, calling for a “bold” plan. But it also included several parts that could frustrate the president — and his conservative base — and sink talks before they even really begin.
The top Democrats said any legislation must contain “clean energy” provisions and “minority-owned business protections.”
Hoagland said he is “a little concerned that Pelosi’s statement talks about creating jobs in a green and modern way if that won’t run afoul of some in the administration that are climate deniers.”
Even if the president and the Democrats in the room Tuesday agree on a framework for talks about legislation, a former White House official said “warring factions” in the West Wing could upend it. Frequently, senior aides believe a decision has been made only for another group to undermine that decision, the former official said.
And then there’s the mercurial president. The sweat had not yet formed on his upper lip Saturday night at a campaign rally in Wisconsin before Trump let his supporters know how he feels about House Democrats as several committees continue boring into his business dealings and political activities.
“Those Democrats in Congress have never been angrier than they are today,” he said, shaking his head as some in the audience booed. “They’ve got some problems, I will say that.”
The day before, during a speech at a National Rifle Association conference, the president was even more explicit.
“America’s future has never been brighter, and yet Democrats have never been angrier, especially now that their ‘collusion delusion’ has been exposed to the world as a complete and total fraud,” he said, referring to Mueller’s probe.
“Instead of working with us to rebuild our infrastructure, lower drug prices … and instead of working with us to fix our trade deals — which I’m doing without them — and continue creating millions and millions of new jobs,” the president said, “Democrats are obsessed with hoaxes, delusions, and witch hunts.”
Trump then added a line that suggested, despite the infrastructure meeting being booked days before he arrived in Indianapolis to address the gun advocates, he is not really in a negotiating mood with the opposition party: “And we can play the game just as well or better than they do.”