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March 15, 2018 3:15 PM, EDT
Congress Struggles to Identify Funding for Trump’s Infrastructure Plan
From left, Elaine Chao, U.S. transportation secretary; Wilbur Ross, U.S. commerce secretary; Alexander Acosta, U.S. labor secretary; Sonny Perdue, U.S. secretary of agriculture; Rick Perry, U.S. secretary of energy. (Zach Gibson/Bloomberg News)

Congress did not come any closer to resolving key funding questions about President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal, even after five Cabinet secretaries testified before a Senate panel on March 14.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was joined by the secretaries of Labor, Commerce, Energy, and Agriculture, reminded senators on the Commerce Committee that the White House maintains an “everything is on the table” approach when it comes to the initiative’s direct federal funding.

Crafting a measure with bipartisan support also remains a priority for the administration, Chao emphasized. “We look forward to working with the Congress on these difficult issues,” she said.

Members of the Commerce Committee, however, struggled to envision the source of $200 billion in direct federal funds the White House is proposing to use to reach the $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investments over 10 years. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) told Chao she was unimpressed by her unwillingness to recommend specific funding tools.

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As Duckworth put it, “I don’t think that’s quite an answer of what I’m asking, which is: ‘What have you considered?’”

Other Democrats argued the initiative would do little to address the country’s overall funding needs. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana dismissed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ suggestion that Montana divest assets to “apply those proceeds” toward an infrastructure budget the federal government would consider matching.

“I can tell you that if it’s to sell off their assets — short of selling their roads for toll roads, which don’t work in a rural state — absolutely not,” said Tester, a Democrat. “Or short of selling their public lands, which, by the way is, could be argued, the largest industry in Montana, even larger than agriculture — I don’t understand how this plan is well-thought out at all to get things built.”

The proposal’s rural component is of interest to most lawmakers. Secretary Sonny Perdue, formerly governor of Georgia, told the panel he looks forward to working with them on finalizing the parameters of what constitutes rural infrastructure in regards to the infrastructure proposal.

“We have a number of definitions of rural across the federal government. We would love to see that synchronized in there so we would have a common definition of rural,” Perdue said. “It’s one of the issues that we deal with in our rural development program: what’s there, what’s eligible and what’s not? And, often times, it misses the boat.”

RELATED: Trump infrastructure plan promotes tolling

The White House unveiled its “principles” package on Feb. 12 that would require $200 billion in federal funds, half of which would be used as an incentives program where states and municipalities could qualify for matching federal dollars. Grants for rural projects and streamlining the construction permitting process to two years are key proposals. The outline also touts tolling as a source of revenue.

Potential funding avenues, such as relying on non-transportation accounts, appear to be limited, Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), acknowledged.

“To get the big, really robust package the president is talking about, you have to come up with a significant source of revenues and so far those haven’t been identified,” Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters after the hearing.

RELATED: Trump’s infrastructure vision still lacks funding source, Sen. Thune says

“I think the offsets are harder this time around, but I suspect that there would be efforts made to come up with pay-fors and to the degree that we can identify those,” he added. “Every part of that would add to I guess how, sort of, expansive the infrastructure package could be.”

Thune also raised the possibility of having Congress vote on a small-scale infrastructure measure this year. And he acknowledged the initiative’s proposal to streamline the permitting process likely would lead to savings in construction costs for infrastructure projects.

Senate floor managers have yet to schedule consideration for an infrastructure measure. On the House side, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) suggested earlier this month that transportation authorizers take up five or six transportation bills. After debate in committee, Ryan added that floor consideration would be scheduled this summer.

Republican leaders also have ruled out increasing federal fuel taxes despite multiple accounts from transportation authorizers that Trump endorsed a fuel hike during a White House meeting on Feb. 14. Infrastructure proponents and freight executives support having higher fuel taxes at the federal level.

Earlier this month, Senate Democrats unveiled a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that would rely on rolling back key provisions in the tax reform legislation enacted last year.

“We need real, direct investments in our infrastructure that do not leave rural America behind. In rural America, toll roads and bridges won’t be any more appealing to private investors than they are to drivers and businesses,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a statement. “Our plan does not rely on ‘Trump Tolls’ that would line the pockets of wealthy developers. It does not force the burden on already cash-strapped states.”