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Trump tells CEOs he'll only back shovel-ready infrastructure

Josh Boak, Associated Press

President Donald Trump speaks during a town hall with business leaders in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Tuesday, April 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- With legislation overhauling taxes and health care on an uncertain path, President Donald Trump returned to the familiar. Trump brought 52 business leaders from New York City to the White House Tuesday to talk about another favorite campaign issue — infrastructure and economic growth.

The U.S. economy has so far proven to be a point of pride for a presidency that has otherwise gotten off to a rocky start. Trump inherited a stable economy from former President Barack Obama, an economic recovery that's heading toward its eighth year. But Trump believes he can do more for business.

Trump and several of his top aides emphasized plans to cut red tape and jumpstart infrastructure projects at Tuesday's meeting, while also previewing for the CEOs other priorities that include shortening flight times for airplanes, increasing the power grid's efficiency and targeting programs to improve job training.

At one point the president had an aide come on stage to hold up a long scroll of the government's approval process for building a highway. The president then pledged to eliminate more than 90 percent of the regulations involved and "still have safety." He provided no details.

The administration has committed to directing as much as $1 trillion for infrastructure over the next decade, although it has yet to release policy specifics. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao recently said she expects a plan will be unveiled later this year.

But getting a measure through Congress could be difficult given the Republican majority in both chambers and their desire to reduce tax rates as much as possible. An infrastructure plan that relies on direct funding could possibly raise the budget deficit more than one that uses tax credits.

Trump touted the plan he says is in the works, telling the room, "We're talking about a very major infrastructure bill of a trillion dollars, perhaps even more."

Administration officials stressed that it can take more than 8 years between funding and the start of project construction, a timeline White House officials say is too slow given the commitment of hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

Trump wanted the CEOs gathered at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building — many of them involved in real estate — to start building roadways, airports, railways, bridges and other infrastructure as quickly as possible.

"If you have a job that you can't start within 90 days, we're not going to give you money for it," Trump said.

The president followed up his remarks at the town hall by giving an afternoon speech to the Building Trades Union, pledging to "rebuild our nation."

At the CEO town hall, Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council, noted that infrastructure upgrades could help growth.

A new air traffic control system that relied on GPS instead of radar would shorten flights and save on jet fuel, helping consumers, he said. Cohn also suggested updates to the power grid to avoid the loss of 20 percent of electricity in transmission. Trump's daughter Ivanka spoke to the CEOs about the value of job training.

The sales pitch with its technocratic angle seemed perfectly targeted for the assembled business leaders.

"It's terrific in terms of the stuff you're trying to do to modernize the government, educate and so forth," said Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group, an investment firm, and chairman of the president's policy forum.

"The outside world doesn't always get the message that that's really what is going on," he said.

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Joan Lowy contributed to this report.