WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer seemed giddy after President Trump told a room full of Democrats and his senior advisers Tuesday that he would back as much as $2 trillion in spending to rebuild the nation’s dilapidated roads, bridges, rail systems, and broadband infrastructure.
But aside from finding the money, there’s another big roadblock ahead: Democrats are determined that any grand plan to replace America’s aging infrastructure should also break the nation’s addiction to carbon.
But attaching green initiatives to the bill could kill it when it hits the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has openly mocked initiatives like the Green New Deal, even scheduling a vote on it in late March just to see it go down in flames.
“Green energy is very important to members of our party,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, answering a question from VICE News at the Capitol after the Tuesday meeting at the White House. “We’re going to push for green.”
Right now it’s all just politics, because there is no infrastructure bill. There's just a verbal commitment from the president, made in private, with none of his party members — who are essential to passing a deal — in the room. But it’s already looking like climate initiatives will be the second-biggest stick in the spokes of this non-deal-deal threatening the passage of anything before 2020.
And it’s not just Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The whole Democratic Party, including most of the freshmen filling out the ranks, seems to be clamoring for a big win ahead of the 2020 election.
“Infrastructure is really a priority that the freshman class sees, and I think we see it along multiple dynamics,” freshman Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “One is very concrete, tangible delivery for our districts.”
Looking for a climate win
Like most other Democrats, Porter says the other reason infrastructure remains such a priority is because it represents a chance to achieve at least some of the party’s climate agenda, which has been crushed by the Trump administration.
“It’s a chance for us to create jobs and to move the needle, at the same time, on how this country runs in terms of reducing our pollutants,” Porter said.
Republicans are already signaling that green initiatives have no place in an infrastructure bill, and to put them there would be playing politics with the nation’s infrastructure.
“Let’s not make this a green, red or blue argument. Let’s make this about doing the right thing for the American people,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) told VICE News at the Capitol. “I hope infrastructure doesn’t become some kind of hyper-politicized debate.”
“Without a clean-energy emphasis, it’s a nonstarter”
But today’s highly partisan Washington is replete with demands from the two parties’ vocal – sometimes even vicious – right and left flanks.
On the Democratic side, there will be no infrastructure bill out of the House that doesn’t address climate. “Without a clean-energy emphasis, it’s a nonstarter,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
Democrats are also skeptical that Trump may be just blowing smoke on infrastructure, particularly since the president burned Pelosi and Schumer after he said he’d exchange wall funding for a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and instead partly shut down the government for more than a month.
That’s why, like many other progressives, Schatz isn’t buying Trump’s backroom promises this time around.
“We’re always open to doing something on infrastructure, but they have had a lot of infrastructure weeks. And there’s no evidence they’re serious about it this time,” Schatz said. “[I’m] firmly in the skeptical camp.”
Don't call it “green”
But another progressive Democrat who was in the room with Trump Tuesday thinks there might be a way to sneak one past the president, by not calling the initiatives “green”.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said the strategy appeared to work in the private meeting.
“When it’s couched as investment in 21st century energy and renewables, he’s, I would say, he was somewhat favorable,” DeFazio told reporters at the Capitol after the meeting. “We didn’t talk about climate change, per se, but there are ways – you know, transit is green transportation, especially when we electrify the buses.”
“If you put it in terms that don’t say ‘climate change,’ there’s ways to get there”
Trump also appeared open to investing in the nation’s outdated power grid when Schumer brought up the dire need to update and enhance the transmission of renewable energy nationwide, according to DeFazio.
“If you put it in terms that don’t say ‘climate change,’ there’s ways to get there,” DeFazio said.
Trump and his brain trust have agreed to meet with Democrats again in three weeks, where the stakes will be higher because Democrats gave them a homework assignment: find ways to come up with the $2 trillion.
And even progressives intent on investigating Trump for crimes and corruption say they’re willing to work with him to get our roads paved.
“The wins are always for the American people,” Rep. Illan Omar (D-Minn.) told VICE News while walking under the Capitol. “Anytime we can get a win for the people, we should always work towards that.”
Still, regarding Trump actually agreeing to a package that promises to address climate change while also creating jobs, Omar says Democrats aren’t naive.
“He’s shown himself to be someone who speaks about collaboration and making a deal,” Omar said. “When he’s expected to rise to the occasion, he always falls short.”
Cover: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (L) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) lead fellow Congressional Democrats out of the White House following a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House April 30, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)