Health care and tax reform legislation are on ice, Congress faces a time crunch to prepare a budget and avoid a debt crisis this summer, and the White House is under pressure from the Russia investigations. But President Donald Trump is trying to turn D.C.’s focus this week to two other mammoth pitches — privatizing air traffic control and promoting his $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
The problems: Capitol Hill aides say a broad infrastructure bill isn’t going anywhere any time soon either. And the proposed air-safety overhaul failed to even make it to the House floor when GOP lawmakers proposed it a year ago.
Continuing to toss ambitious proposals into an already-stuffed legislative calendar poses a danger for Trump: If he and Congress can’t regroup to focus on one priority at a time, they could end up seeing the president’s three biggest policy objectives — tax reform, health care and infrastructure — stuck in the Capitol.
“I believe a new president has about a year to get three to four big things done,” said former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican who served under President Barack Obama. “And if they don’t do it in that year, it’s probably pretty much a lost opportunity.”
A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump kicked off Monday morning with a formal endorsement of a controversial GOP proposal to privatize air traffic control, a transportation initiative that the White House is lumping into its infrastructure push.
Trump’s separate $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which so far amounts to a six-page fact sheet tucked into his fiscal 2018 budget, involves spending $200 billion in federal money over the next decade to upgrade roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and other transportation networks, along with broadband, schools and hospitals, the administration has said. The rest of the money would come from other sources, including private financiers who could recoup their money by charging tolls and fees.
But lawmakers haven’t made much progress in trying to turn those infrastructure ideas into legislation — and tax reform might need to happen first to provide the needed federal money. If so, “it could change the timeline quite a bit, depending,” said California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, who leads the House Transportation Committee’s rail subcommittee.
The air traffic control proposal that took center stage Monday at the White House is much further along, having been batted around in past administrations since the 1980s and more recently championed by House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). Shuster sponsored a bill on the topic last year and has already held one hearing on the issue this spring.
But Shuster’s previous bill got a rough reception in Congress just a year ago, failing to even make it to the House floor after lawmakers of both parties attacked it. It’s unclear whether its fortunes will change because of Monday’s endorsement from Trump, who outlined broad legislative “principles” for a bill that would split air traffic control away from the FAA and place it under a private, nonprofit corporation governed by a board that includes the airline industry.
While the event in the East Room resembled a bill signing and included members of Congress, the principles still need to win congressional approval — which is far from a sure thing.
Shuster’s ideas had one thing going for them, however: Because of all his previous work, the administration could rely on a nearly ready-made proposal for Monday’s rollout. That’s one reason it went first.
"Part is because Chairman Shuster did a very good job in pulling together a package," Trump infrastructure adviser D.J. Gribbin said Monday when describing why the administration kicked off its infrastructure focus with air traffic control. "It seemed like naturally low-hanging fruit from a policy perspective. It also serves as a great template for how we think about infrastructure."
Privatizing the FAA’s air traffic control operations may be an issue near and dear to Trump, who owns his own fleet of planes and helicopters and has complained for decades about the noise of jets flying over his mansion in Palm Beach, Fla. But it isn’t exactly the kind of infrastructure improvement that Trump talked about during the presidential campaign, when he called for a nationwide push to fix aging roads, bridges and airports.
“We have bridges that are falling down. … We have many, many bridges that are in danger of falling,” Trump said in August. “We’re going to have to rebuild our infrastructure. We have no choice.”
Trump returned to the theme during his election-night victory speech in November, pledging that “we’re going to rebuild our infrastructure — which will become, by the way, second to none — and we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
The idea seemed for a while to have bipartisan appeal. The $1 trillion price tag “sounded good to me,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told ABC News in December.
But Democrats have increasingly soured on Trump’s plan as the details became clearer — including the fact that the federal government would provide only a fifth of the money, while the rest would come from states, cities, counties and private investors. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would provide just $5 billion for the infrastructure initiative, while imposing sharp cuts on various existing transportation programs.
“When the president ran, he said it was about America First and creating jobs in America. He talked about infrastructure. The average person thinks roads, bridges, school, broadband, water delivery systems,” said Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, a critic of Trump’s plan who joined fellow liberal Democrats offering their own infrastructure proposal. “A very small part of it is going to be traditional infrastructure. And a lot of it is going to be the selling out of our roads and bridges to the private sector.”
Shuster’s air traffic control proposal is faring little better so far. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called it “a tired Republican plan that both sides of the aisle have rejected.” Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon has staunchly opposed it from his perch as top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee. Meanwhile, tax-writers from both parties have been lukewarm to the idea, and senior Republican appropriators like former Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who oversees DOT spending, have outright opposed it.
At the same time, Trump’s infrastructure ideas have had to overcome initial skepticism from conservative budget hawks.
A White House official huddled with representatives from more than a dozen conservative groups last week in a bid to sell them on the $1 trillion infrastructure plan. And while conservatives are warming to the proposal, they also acknowledge that an infrastructure bill could take a backseat to must-pass legislation.
“Infrastructure doesn’t have a deadline attached to it, which makes it easier to push back to next year,” said one official from a leading conservative group who has talked to the White House about the proposal. “The longer this goes, there’s certainly an intersection with the midterm elections.”
As with health care, Trump could also face sharp differences of opinion between the House and Senate on infrastructure. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said last month that he is striking out on his own, working on legislation within his own committee — and with Democrats.
"We are going to work with the White House, but we’re not going to wait,” he said.
Meanwhile, the infrastructure push continues.
On Wednesday, Trump will travel to Ohio and Kentucky for a speech that will focus on waterways and rural infrastructure, followed by a Thursday meeting in the White House with mayors and governors and a Friday address at DOT.
White House officials have dubbed this week “infrastructure week,” part of a series of policy-themed weeks that the administration is expected to roll out in the coming months, including one focused on energy planned for late June that could include a trip to Louisiana to visit a liquefied natural gas export facility, administration officials said. But if past is precedent, it’s very possible Trump could change the subject again with a series of indignant tweets or an offhand comment during a rally.
On infrastructure, which requires a sizable pot of money from the federal government regardless of how much private financing the administration expects to leverage, any tough votes on scrounging up that funding — like a gas tax increase or a fee based on miles driven — would ideally happen before members find themselves in campaign season again, LaHood said.
If “Congress doesn’t really begin to start talking about the funding alternatives by the August recess, I think a lot of time has been lost and I think we’re right back behind the curve again in terms of getting anything done,” LaHood said.
“The tough votes need to be taken this year,” he said.