President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the mega-omnibus spending bill barreling its way through Congress ahead of the March 23 government funding deadline if it contains a pork pet project for New York and New Jersey that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, wants in the bill.
Efforts to insert into the omnibus spending bill $900 million in funding for the New York-New Jersey “Gateway” project—a series of tunnels and bridges between Newark and Manhattan to improve traffic flow—are being led by Schumer and House GOP Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ). Frelinghuysen, who is retiring at the end of his current term, controls the purse strings in the House of Representatives and has an enormous amount of influence and power over the spending process from his perch atop the House Appropriations Committee. But, as reported by a number of outlets last week—and confirmed by Breitbart News—it is President Trump who is standing against the boondoggle pet project, which has already skyrocketed exorbitantly beyond initial estimates.
President Trump is not alone in fighting back against this, either: Conservatives in the House, led by rising freshman conservative House Freedom Caucus star Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC), are fighting back too.
“This is really a bundle of about nine different projects together,” Budd said in an appearance Sunday evening on Breitbart News Sunday on SiriusXM 125 the Patriot Channel. “It’s a tunnel, it’s a bridge, and it’s really a corridor connector between Newark, New Jersey, and Manhattan. This is not a debate over the necessity of this project. It’s really about who pays for this. Let me just go back to 2011: That’s when Republicans, very rightly so, stopped earmarks in the House in our bills. When I was sworn in, you mentioned when you introduced me that I’m a freshman here, so in January of 2017—the day before I was sworn in—Republicans almost brought them back. We shut that down, we said no way, we said we’re not bringing these back. Then, now, in September of last year—September of 2017—Rodney Frelinghuysen, from northern New Jersey, a Republican and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, that’s the committee that spends the money and that’s the power of Congress there, inserted what is essentially—and remember this is under the period of the earmarks ban that we’re still in—inserted a $900 million essentially an earmark that funded this Gateway project. So I can guess he can do that if he has the power of being the chairman of the committee that spends the money, but I led a fight to say you know what? We’re going to take that $900 million and spend half that on projects that need the money and that we’re going to take the other $474 million, I believe, and put it toward deficit reduction. Very popular among Republicans, 2 to 1, it did not pass the overall House because we couldn’t get any Democrats on board, but 2 to 1 the Republicans in the House said yeah, this is the right idea, we’re going to pull this thing. So, that’s the recent history.”
It seemed like Budd had successfully held this off from ever becoming law back then after his fall 2017 battle against the wasteful federal spending on this program. But, then news broke that the political class in Washington, D.C.—Schumer and Frelinghuysen in particular—had started efforts to insert funding for this Gateway program in the 2018 omnibus spending bill coming up for a vote later in the month to fund the government long-term. But a couple things, including a Budd-Trump tag-team, jeopardized Schumer’s ploy. Budd spoke out in Wall Street Journal op-ed, and then about Trump dropped a threat of a veto of the entire omnibus spending bill, at about the same time last week.
The Gateway Project was first proposed in 2011 at an estimated cost of $13.5 billion—but estimates have shot sharply upwards since then, in 2017 now estimated to cost $29.5 billion. In the summer of 2017, Frelinghuysen inserted $900 million for the project as what amounted to essentially an earmark into a House funding bill for the Transportation Department—something Budd led a House effort to fight. It never made it into actual law, as Congress passed multiple stopgap Continuing Resolution (CR) spending bills from the fall through the early spring to avoid and—in some cases end minor—government shutdowns.
Senate Democrats shut the government down in January as part of an effort to force their position on a legislative replacement for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive amnesty from former President Barack Obama that President Trump ended. That effort backfired, and they quickly backed a CR to reopen the government. Then, a funding lapse a few weeks later led to a minor shutdown for a few hours, before the current CR was passed that keeps the government open until March 23. A budget deal has been reached by congressional and executive branch leaders that sets top-line spending levels for the forthcoming omnibus spending bill, but the specific line-by-line spending items have not been agreed to yet—something that must happen before March 23 to avoid another lapse and potential shutdown.
Schumer considers this Gateway Project a top priority of his personally, and has made that clear for years. He and Frelinghuysen among others are attempting to insert the funding for this project into the omnibus spending bill coming up now—even though his state of New York and neighboring New Jersey, the only two states that will directly benefit from it, are putting up exactly no money for this.
“I think you’re exactly right, and the last thing you said—not putting up any of the money—is the real problem,” Budd said on Breitbart News Sunday. “Look, they say on one side of the argument how important it is. Okay, great. Show us some money. But, they haven’t done anything. And let’s go back to some recent history. [Now former New Jersey] Gov. [Chris] Christie, in 2010, had $3 billion to go towards this project—not this project but something very similar that would solve the same need. Gov. Christie diverted $3 billion away from this project into New Jersey highways, and that was an election year for him and that kept him from having to raise the state’s gas tax. So he played politics with $3 billion of this money, it helped him out, but it really showed up later as fiscal irresponsibility because now that money’s gone and they’re asking to put the federal government on the hook for it. I’m in North Carolina, and I’m saying no way to this.”
In early March, the Washington Post confirmed that President Trump called House Speaker Paul Ryan to express his opposition to inclusion of Gateway Project funding in the omnibus spending bill.
“President Trump is pushing congressional Republicans not to fund a crucial infrastructure project — a long-delayed plan to build a new rail tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey — setting up a confrontation that could complicate passage of a massive government spending bill this month,” the Post’s Mike DeBonis and Josh Dawsey reported on March 2. “Trump personally appealed to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) this week to target federal funding for the $30 billion Gateway project, which would construct a tunnel into New York’s Penn Station to supplement two aging tubes that are at risk of failing in the coming years.”
In later testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao confirmed that Trump is opposed to this project.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), a liberal Democrat from New York, asked her: “Is the president of the United States personally intervening with the speaker to kill this project?”
“Yes,” Chao responded. “The president is concerned about the viability of this project and the fact that New York and New Jersey have no skin in the game. They need to step up and bear their fair share. They are two of the richest states in the country. If they absorb all these funds, there will be no other funds for the rest of the country.”
“So they’re going to put the funding inside this omnibus,” Budd said on Breitbart News Sunday. “Schumer really wants this. This is a priority. A couple things happened together, almost like a zeitgeist of the moment. I had an op-ed in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal saying that this is the Northeast’s costly tunnel vision. It really talked about how those of us around the country, the other 48 states not including New York and New Jersey, don’t need to be funding this. Sure, it’s important. But, Secretary [Elaine] Chao, the head of [the] Transportation [Department] said last week, look, New York and New Jersey, you need to step up with more than zero percent, more than five percent to pay for this. So, if it’s as important as you say it is, then okay, pay for it. But not at zero percent, not at five percent. This is not necessarily a federal project. I wrote the op-ed on that, and Trump at a nearly similar time said hey, he didn’t want this funding either. This may be between him and Schumer, this may be because he didn’t believe it fit his conservative priorities—not sure. But he’s against it. I’m against it. And it happened together, so, it really hit national news—I’m really glad for it, this is a fight we need to be about.”
Budd argued in his Breitbart News Sunday appearance that this is yet another symptom of dysfunction in Washington that stems largely from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to eliminate the outdated filibuster rule that requires 60 votes instead of a simple majority to pass legislation. He also says that if McConnell eliminated the filibuster, Congress may be able to stop giant omnibus spending bills and return to fiscal sanity by passing 12 separate appropriations bills funding the government in chunks—which would allow the American people, through Congress, to have more control over how the government spends money. And given Trump’s history at taking projects in under budget and ahead of schedule–see Wollman Rink example–he may just be the guy to do this big picture to end the craziness in Washington once and for all.
“The Senate is 100 yards away and lifetimes apart,” Budd said. “It is a different world down at the other end of the Capitol. I would suggest my view from the House of Representatives is there are 435 of us. We pass things with a simple majority. That’s 218 votes. If you get over in the Senate, 60 votes—it takes either 100 votes to move forward, so unanimity, or 60 to pass anything. But I go back to the 17th amendment, the moved from the [state legislatures] appointing the senators to popular majority in the states, but they still have the 60-vote rule? You know what? If you’re going to have a popular majority in the states send the senators here, then let the Senate move forward with a simple majority. I think that would really make sense, and then we could really get so much done. They call it ‘the nuclear option,’ and I think that’s really supposed to make people scared of it. But, the nuclear option is just simply means 51 votes, or a simple majority. That sounds smart to me. I think we could get a lot more done that way. And it would make people be very sensitive as to who they’re sending from their states.”
It remains to be seen where this fight goes, but before the long-term omnibus funding bill passes–it is expected to eventually pass–Congress may be headed for one more last bout of brinksmanship between Trump and Schumer. Trump has won the first few rounds, and with his veto power, may yet win this one.