Trump to Dems: No deal on rural broadband, infrastructure until misconduct probes end

President Donald Trump rang the death knell Wednesday for a federal bill that might have expanded internet to millions of homes across the United States, including more than half a million in South Carolina.

Three weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn felt optimistic about the chances of Congress passing a $2 trillion infrastructure bill — and his chances for securing, in that piece of legislation, tens of billions of dollars to connect 19 million people with reliable internet access.

For the South Carolina Democrat and U.S. House Majority Whip, those chances diminished on Wednesday.

At a meeting at the White House where Clyburn was prepared to reiterate his pitch to fund universal broadband coverage, Trump told congressional Democrats he wouldn’t negotiate any infrastructure bill until the party agrees to stop investigating allegations of misconduct against him. Democrats did not agree, and the meeting ended before it started.

Unless either party changes its mind, Clyburn now needs to find another way to fund universal broadband coverage, which is lacking for 14.5 million residents of the country’s rural areas, including 530,000 South Carolinians.

Insufficient internet connections prevent students from completing schoolwork, rural hospitals from serving patients and entrepreneurs from running businesses.

For Clyburn and other broadband advocates who have been trying to raise attention to this issue for years, addressing the so-called “digital divide” was always going to be a challenge, even as part of an infrastructure package.

Estimates put the cost of universal broadband at anywhere from $41 billion to $61 billion, if not more. Finding that money is difficult under ordinary circumstances, and in the case of an infrastructure bill advocates would be competing with proponents of more funding for bridges, roads, airports and waterways.

But at least there was $2 trillion set aside to work with. Now, Clyburn must look elsewhere and try to maintain the momentum he saw growing around the issue as Democrats — seeing it as a winning political issue — made rural broadband deployment a condition of their support for any infrastructure bill.

In an interview with McClatchy on Wednesday, Clyburn said he wasn’t giving up, and that there were other options.

Lawmakers could use government spending bills to funnel more money into programs that are already being run through the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to equip rural America with broadband.

The very same day as the thwarted White House meeting, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee was holding a hearing on legislation called the “LIFT America Act,” which would, among other things, “expand access to broadband.”

“Broadband has gotta be a part of any infrastructure bill, but we don’t have to have an infrastructure bill to have broadband,” Clyburn said.

On Wednesday evening, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said her members would continue to work on infrastructure legislation, “regardless of the President’s behavior.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.