Trump to Democrats: OK new NAFTA before public works bill

‘Once Congress has passed USMCA, we should turn our attention to a bipartisan infrastructure package,’ the president said

From left, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., Vice President Mike Pence, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., President Donald Trump, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., exit the Capitol after the annual Friends of Ireland Luncheon on March 14, 2019. As Democrats head to the White House to meet with Trump over a massive public works bill, the president told them such legislation should take a back seat to his new NAFTA deal, the USMCA. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

On the eve of his second meeting with congressional Democrats about a potential $2 trillion public works bill, President Donald Trump told them such legislation should take a back seat to his trade deal with Canada and Mexico.

“Before we get to infrastructure, it is my strong view that Congress should first pass the important and popular USMCA trade deal,” Trump wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “Once Congress has passed USMCA, we should turn our attention to a bipartisan infrastructure package,” the president continued.

[Mexican official rejects Democratic effort to reopen new NAFTA]

The White House meeting Wednesday morning should go on as planned, Trump said in the letter, in which he also laid out a broad public works agenda that included investments in broadband and artificial intelligence in addition to roads, bridges, ports, airports and transit systems.

He also urged the Democrats to prioritize their infrastructure demands, telling the leaders their “caucus expressed a wide-range of priorities, and it is unclear which ones have your support.”

“I had hoped that we could have worked out these priorities following our last meeting, but you cancelled a scheduled meeting of our teams, preventing them from advancing our discussions,” Trump wrote.

“In our conversations with the President, Democrats will continue to insist on our principles: that any plan we support be big, bold and bipartisan; that it be comprehensive, future-focused, green and resilient; and that it be a jobs and ownership-boost with strong Buy America, labor, and women, veteran and minority-owned business protections,” Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement late Tuesday.

[Trump, House Republicans meet to line up support for new NAFTA]

Democrats in the House, which would vote before the Senate on implementing legislation for the proposed agreement, have said there will be no vote until the administration addresses concerns about 10 years of monopoly pricing for drug companies on biologic medications and enforcement mechanisms for environmental and labor provisions. Democrats have said they want parts of the United States-Mexico-Canada pact to be renegotiated to address their concerns.

After their first public works meeting at the White House in April, Democrats cheered the verbal support they said they received from Trump for an infrastructure package of $2 trillion, a number conservative lawmakers have said is too high.

“As you know we met with him and talked about what he had talked about during the course of his campaign — a substantial infrastructure package — and we support (it),” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday.

He said the Democrats had told Trump they wanted him to lead the effort to craft a comprehensive infrastructure funding package.

Presidential leadership

“We want to support this effort, but the president’s going to have to lead, and we will see whether or not he’s going to do that.” Hoyer said. “I hope that he does, and I hope that we can proceed. I think the members — the Democrats in the House — want to proceed on an infrastructure program, and we will be supportive of the President’s leadership if, in fact, he leads.”

The Democrats will head to the White House on the heels of the Transportation Department moving to cancel $1 billion in funding for California’s high-speed rail project, escalating a feud between the state’s representatives and the White House.

It’s not clear if Pelosi will bring that up in the meeting or whether the Gateway project, another contentious undertaking that’s a priority for Schumer will be discussed. The Gateway project would replace a century-old bridge and tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York. The White House has excluded the project from its fiscal 2020 budget request.

Lawmakers from both parties have signaled they want an infrastructure package completed this year as industry groups warn that the nation’s roads, bridges, ports, water systems and other public works are in decrepit condition and in desperate need for repair and upgrades.

“When the President and Congressional Democrats meet again we hope there is no confusion over this point: voters want safe and reliable bridges and highways that help them get where they’re going, and they have proven time and again they will pay for a plan,” the North American Concrete Alliance said in anticipation of the meeting. “There is no excuse to balk at a solution. We don’t have any time to waste.”

Since the April meeting, Trump has tasked a number of Republicans to explore ways to raise the $2 trillion to pay for the construction, repair and upgrade of the nation’s public works. It’s unclear what ideas the Republicans have come up with. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told CQ Roll Call last week he had no update on the search for ideas on how to raise that amount of money.

A representative for Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said House Republicans hadn’t been involved in the previous meeting or the one expected Wednesday. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., told CQ he would not be attending the meeting.

Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., will be among the Democrats going to the White House.

“Sen. Carper believes that a bold $2 trillion infrastructure plan is possible if and only if there is an earnest, bipartisan conversation and political courage from the president about how to pay for it,” a spokesperson for Carper said. “He looks forward to learning what new revenue sources the president may be willing to support in order to make sorely needed improvements to our national infrastructure.”

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