A key piece of the Republicans’ 2018 legislative agenda is shape-shifting.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s pronouncement last week that an infrastructure overhaul will be tackled in multiple bills serves a dual purpose: It keeps hope for one of the president’s top policy priorities alive, while setting more realistic expectations for what will get done this midterm election year.
During an event with Home Depot employees in Georgia on Thursday, Ryan affirmed House Republicans’ intentions to complete an infrastructure overhaul this year but said it won’t be one giant package, as some had envisioned. Rather, the overhaul will be done in five to six bills, the Wisconsin Republican said.
“We think it’s easier to break it into pieces,” he said.
Some bills will be easier to pass than others. Not all of the pieces Ryan is envisioning are likely to make it to President Donald Trump’s desk, but if he can pass all or most of them out of the House, he can deflect blame to the Senate.
The speaker announced the piecemeal infrastructure strategy the week after Senate Republican leaders started to publicly cast doubt on their ability to pass an infrastructure overhaul this year.
Watch: Ryan Talks Infrastructure at Home Depot Event
“It could be challenging to get infrastructure done in light of everything else we have to do,” Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Feb. 27.
In addition to scheduling concerns, the Senate Republican Conference chairman said finding a way to pay for the federal investment in infrastructure — Trump has proposed $200 billion and some lawmakers want more — is “a big problem.”
The No. 2 Senate Republican, Majority Whip John Cornyn, joined Thune, the No. 3, in describing the effort to pass an infrastructure package this year as “challenging.”
“I certainly would be happy if we could, but we’ve got a lot of things to do, that being one of them, and I don’t know if we will have time to get to that,” the Texas Republican said in a recent Bloomberg News interview.
If Senate Republicans believe finding floor time for one big infrastructure package is tough, it could be nearly impossible for them to find floor time for the five or six bills Ryan wants to pass before the annual August recess.
However, some of the bills Ryan is talking about are things the Senate was likely already planning to include in its schedule.
For example, the Senate is aware of the need to pass a short-term extension of the Federal Aviation Administration, whose authorization is scheduled to expire March 31.
Ryan said the FAA extension, likely to keep the agency running into the summer, is going to be the first infrastructure bill out of the gate. On Thursday he said the multi-bill infrastructure effort would start “in about a week and a half.”
While Ryan didn’t specify whether the FAA extension would move as a stand-alone or on another vehicle, many lawmakers expect it to be attached to the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill.
The spending measure will include a “down payment” on infrastructure funding, Ryan said. He was referring to a budget deal reached earlier this year on raising the sequestration spending caps that sets aside $10 billion in fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019 for infrastructure from the nondefense spending increase agreed to for those years.
Other specific bills that Ryan said would be part of the piecemeal infrastructure overhaul include a longer-term FAA reauthorization, the biennial Water Resources Development Act authorizing water infrastructure projects like ports and inland waterways, and legislation to streamline the permit approval process.
Congress had planned to do the FAA and WRDA measures this year anyway, separate of the larger infrastructure push from President Donald Trump and his administration.
The piecemeal approach could signal a rejection of a major part of the White House’s proposal, which would spend $200 billion of federal money, largely through three new grant programs, in an effort to spur $1.5 trillion of spending from all levels of government and the private sector.
Ryan didn’t mention the grant programs, or some infrastructure the administration wants to fund like the energy grid, rural broadband and Veterans Affairs hospitals. He did mention reducing regulations that slow construction permits and discourage private investment, which is one aspect of the White House proposal.
“We want to streamline the approval process so we can [get] these modernization projects going through to the system faster,” he said. “We also want to do what we can to get private sector dollars involved, because we can leverage public sector dollars to get more infrastructure in it.”
Ryan also alluded to a traditional highway funding bill that would infuse money into the Highway Trust Fund.
“We’re going to do the traditional infrastructure you’re thinking of, which is like highways and roads and bridges,” he said.
The current surface transportation authorization lasts through fiscal 2020. The Highway Trust Fund, which pays for federal highway and transit spending, is projected to run out of money shortly after.
Democrats and a handful of Republicans have called for an increase in the federal fuel taxes that flow into the trust fund. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania has hinted that a bill he’s writing with ranking member Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon would include a gas tax increase.
Ryan, however, has ruled that out.
“There are some people who are talking about that, but the last thing we want to do is pass historic tax relief in December and then undo that, so we are not going to raise gas taxes,” the speaker said Wednesday during a telephone town hall with conservative activists from Americans for Prosperity.
DeFazio said Democrats wouldn’t support an infrastructure bill without new revenue attached to it. He prefers a gas tax increase and said it was up to Trump to convince Ryan.
“I’ve said all along: Ryan is ideologically opposed to the federal government funding a national transportation system,” he said. “I never expected him to be supportive, and I told President Trump if he wanted to do a real gas tax increase that he was gonna have to take on the speaker of the House and his leadership team.”