WASHINGTON — As Congress and the White House contemplate the next phase of the government response to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic toll, leaders in both parties are increasingly raising the prospect of enacting a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan that could create thousands of jobs.
President Trump and congressional Democrats have clashed for years over how to structure such a plan, and striking a deal to do so would be an exceedingly steep challenge in an election year. But as the novel coronavirus ravages the economy, both parties appear to be coalescing behind the idea of something akin to a New Deal-style jobs program to help the nation cope with what is expected to be a deep recession.
Whether or not a compromise can be reached, the infrastructure issue is likely to become a centerpiece of both Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign, and the Democratic fight to retain control of the House and win the Senate, as the two parties compete to position themselves as more responsive to voters’ needs.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and her top lieutenants on Wednesday outlined the contours of their proposal, building off a five-year, $760 billion framework House Democrats introduced earlier this year. Among the new provisions are an extra $10 billion for community health centers fighting the spread of the pandemic and a program that would provide federal grants to pay for drinking water and wastewater utility bills in low-income households during public health crises.
“We have never, ever gone down a path that involves this much investment for the future, involving this many people in our country, and again now at this time, we’re having a further health urgency, an immediate urgency,” Ms. Pelosi said during a telephone call with reporters Wednesday morning. “We’ve had overtures from the administration on how we would go forward, and we’ll be working to get that done.”
Mr. Trump early Tuesday morning endorsed the prospect of including an infrastructure program as part of the next phase of the federal coronavirus response. Given the current low interest rates, he wrote on Twitter, such a plan “should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”
Mr. Trump campaigned in 2016 on a promise to launch a $1 trillion infrastructure initiative, and Democrats and Republicans have long called for such an effort. But the president has battled with Democrats over how to pay for such a plan, and attempts to transform the bipartisan aspirations into action have fallen short so many times that the phrase “Infrastructure Week” has become something of a joke in Washington.
“One of the challenges that you have when you deal with people in the administration who don’t have a lot of governing experience, it’s hard to depict for them how easy infrastructure was when we were able to do it,” said Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the House Ways and Means committee. “It used to be we routinely get 400 votes in the House, and so without that institutional memory, I think that’s a bit of a challenge.”
Still, the coronavirus crisis has created a new willingness among Republicans to embrace the kind of costly and far-reaching government programs they typically resist.
In March, Congress approved and Mr. Trump signed three packages totaling more than $2 trillion to respond to the pandemic, including a substantial boost to the federal social safety net.
“The president very much wants to rebuild the country, and with interest rates low, that’s something that’s very important to him,” said Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, on CNBC Wednesday. “We expect there will be more bills, and we think it is a great time now to invest in infrastructure.”
Some Republican leaders have grown increasingly concerned that Democrats will attempt to use the pandemic to force through their pet policy prescriptions, and have begun pulling back from the idea of a fourth relief package, saying lawmakers should wait to see if more relief is necessary.
“Before we go at this again — remember this is $2 trillion we added to the debt,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said on Fox News Radio Tuesday. “We need to make certain that any further actions we take are directly related to this public health crisis.”
Mr. McConnell warned that Democrats were pushing “a whole laundry list of completely unrelated items” for inclusion in coronavirus response legislation. And on Wednesday, Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, expressed similar concerns.
“Offsetting the carbon footprint of airplanes, remaking our energy grid or changing election laws, as Democrats have suggested, have nothing to do with our war against the disease,” Mr. McCarthy said in a statement. “This isn’t a time to attempt to reshape American life through the eyes of one political party.”
Democrats’ infrastructure plan includes billions of dollars to expand the country’s passenger rail network, improve Amtrak stations and services, maintain ports and harbors, increase climate resiliency and further address greenhouse gas pollution. It would also dedicate funds to expand broadband access, a response in part to the extent that millions of Americans have depended on internet connectivity while staying at home to slow the spread of the virus.
Senate Republicans support an infrastructure plan put forward by Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, along with Senators Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the committee, Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, and Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland.
Mr. Trump mentioned the measure, which would authorize $287 billion over five years and includes $259 billion to maintain and repair roads and bridges, in his State of the Union address in February. And before posting his call for infrastructure investment on Twitter, he spoke with Mr. Barrasso about incorporating that measure into the future legislative response to the pandemic.
“As we look to the things we can do to help the economy after the medical crisis is behind us, clearly funding roads and bridges and highways should be a part of that,” Mr. Barrasso said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s a way to get people back to work and get money directly to the states where it can be used and deployed to projects that are already on the books and ready for funding.”
Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Neal were in frequent communication about the possibilities of an infrastructure package well before the pandemic reached the United States. In the fall, the Treasury secretary privately told the Ways and Means Committee chairman that an infrastructure bill would be next in line after the House passed the administration’s revised North American trade agreement, which it did in December, according to a person familiar with the conversation who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Ms. Pelosi said it was crucial that the package include Democrats’ proposals for expanding broadband access across the country.
“This is so essential because of the historic nature of the health and economic emergencies that we are confronting,” Ms. Pelosi said on Wednesday. “We must take bold action to renew America’s infrastructure.”
Other top Democrats also pointed to the establishment of the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, two New Deal programs that helped employ millions of Americans after the Great Depression, as precedent for using infrastructure investment to revive the economy and reduce unemployment.
“There is no one on either side of the aisle who doesn’t believe our infrastructure needs to be reconstructed,” said Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon and the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We’re going to need to retool America, rebuild our infrastructure and I think it is absolutely a key part of this whole package. We’re looking forward.”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.