WASHINGTON – Reality has set in during the three weeks since President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders agreed to work together on a $2 trillion infrastructure package to invest in roads, bridges and broadband.
As Trump and Democratic lawmakers prepare to meet Wednesday for Round 2 of their infrastructure talks, the president is making it clear he'd really rather change the subject.
The White House released a letter Tuesday night that Trump sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer letting them know his preference for Congress taking up the proposed U.S. trade deal with Mexico and Canada first.
"Once Congress has passed USMCA, we should turn our attention to a bipartisan infrastructure package," Trump said.
Republican leaders in Congress have shown little enthusiasm for the price tag of the infrastructure plan, and even less for the idea of raising the federal fuel tax to help pay for upgrading the nation's infrastructure. Trump himself has suggested that Democrats are somehow setting a trap to get him to go along with a tax increase.
Pelosi and Schumer said after their last White House meeting in late April that there was a consensus on one aspect of infrastructure: The agreement would be big and bold. But funding is a different matter. Democrats emerged saying they would return to hear Trump's suggestions on how to pay for infrastructure.
But Trump expressed wariness in a Fox News interview that aired Sunday, saying he thought the White House was "being played by the Democrats a little bit."
"You know, I think what they want me to do is say, 'Well, what we'll do is raise taxes,' and we'll do this and this and this, and then they'll have a news conference, see, 'Trump wants to raise taxes,'" he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dismissed the potential for a sweeping plan or for raising the gas tax at a recent Senate GOP lunch with Vice President Mike Pence, according to those familiar with the meeting.
And House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said that it was unrealistic to place the funding decision with the president. Democrats will need to make suggestions, too.
"You don't ask the president, 'Show me how to pay for it,'" Scalise said. "The president doesn't pass the bill that pays for it. Ultimately, it has got to go through the House and Senate. We, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, have to come to an agreement, working with the White House, on how to pay for it. Those negotiations haven't really started in earnest."
Trump also requested that Pelosi and Schumer provide more specifics about how much they would like to dedicate to the various priorities they want an infrastructure bill to cover, such as airports, ports and local wastewater systems.
"Your caucus has expressed a wide-range of priorities, and it is unclear which ones have your support," he said.
Trump also complained that he had hoped to work out the priorities following a meeting in late April at the White House, "but you cancelled a scheduled meeting of our teams, preventing them from advancing our discussions. Nevertheless, I remain committed to passing an infrastructure bill."
Shortly after the release of Trump's letter, Pelosi and Schumer issued their own statement, promising to 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."
Business and trade groups have been meeting with White House officials to emphasize the importance of shoring up the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road improvements and transit systems. Federal fuel taxes supply most of the money that goes into the trust fund, but the purchasing power of the gas tax has declined as vehicles have become more fuel efficient.
Some 30 states have enacted fuel tax increases to raise money for local roads and bridges over the past six years, but Congress has not approved a fuel tax increase since 1993. It now stands at 18.3 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.3 cents a gallon for diesel.
The advocacy groups are trying to make the case that state politicians supportive of gas tax increases have not been punished at the ballot box.
"The political playbook has changed. People will vote for infrastructure even if it means new user fees," said Linda Bauer Darr, president & CEO of the American Council of Engineering Companies.
However, the White House has been reluctant to provide any details of what the president will support.
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
Reach Kevin Freking on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/APkfreking .
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