Senate takes lead on Trump’s infrastructure proposal

The Senate is taking the lead on President Trump’s effort to move a massive infrastructure package through Congress.

Top GOP lawmakers in the upper chamber are pushing ahead with plans that could serve as the building blocks for negotiations on the president’s initiative following the first real glimpse of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure proposal this week. 

{mosads}“We’re working on a bill. We think it’s important to do,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, said in a telephone interview. “This is along the lines of what President Trump promised the country. … That’s why the first hearing I held as EPW chairman was on infrastructure.”

Lawmakers from both parties have been clamoring for more information about Trump’s highly anticipated infrastructure package.

The White House outlined a broad sketch of the initiative in a six-page fact sheet released alongside Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request on Tuesday, with an actual legislative package expected to drop later this year.

But in the absence of concrete details — and amid growing doubts about whether Trump can muscle the proposal through Congress this year — several Senate panels are forging ahead with their own infrastructure blueprints.

Barrasso, who also serves on the Republican leadership team, has held half a dozen infrastructure hearings since taking the helm of EPW this year. His panel has jurisdiction over a broad range of infrastructure issues, including waterways, ports, bridges, roads and other public works.

The panel has explored funding options, heard about ways to streamline the permit approval process and compared public- and private-sector roles in building infrastructure projects.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao recently gave the committee updates on Trump’s rebuilding plan during her first congressional testimony since her confirmation hearing, saying a detailed legislative package won’t be unveiled until sometime in the “third quarter.”

Barrasso may incorporate infrastructure ideas similar to his panel’s into his own legislation, which he plans to introduce “this summer.”

That timeline could put it ahead of when Trump’s infrastructure plan lands on Capitol Hill. 

But Barrasso is working closely with both the administration and EPW members to ensure his bill garners bipartisan support and falls in line with the White House’s vision.

“From day one, I started meeting with each member of the EPW committee. A lot of times on environmental issues, we fight like cats and dogs, but with infrastructure issues, we come together,” he said. “We’re going to get something out of the EPW committee that’s going to be bipartisan.”

Chief on Barrasso’s list of priorities: ensuring that rural infrastructure needs are targeted in any rebuilding package.

There has been increasing concern among Democrats and rural Republicans that the administration’s emphasis on public-private partnerships could neglect projects in rural areas that can’t recoup their investment costs through some sort of revenue stream.

Chao repeatedly assured senators that the president’s infrastructure proposal would allow rural regions to tap federal resources for transportation upgrades.

But Barrasso isn’t taking any chances. Writing his own legislation and firing his opening salvo in the debate could better position his committee to put a stamp on the final infrastructure product. 

It could also help ease the minds of lawmakers who are anxious to see some progress on an infrastructure measure ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

“We are going to work with the White House, but we’re not going to wait,” Barrasso said at a Transportation Construction Coalition event last week.

He’s not the only senator trying to get the ball rolling on infrastructure.

A Senate Appropriations subcommittee held a hearing in March to examine ways to pay for major transportation upgrades — one of the biggest questions hanging over Trump’s ambitious rebuilding plans.

“When I first heard the president’s plan for a $1 trillion infrastructure investment, I was extremely excited. But I started thinking about the financing, and the fact no one was really talking in specific terms,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who chairs a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee, authored legislation that would divert money to the ailing Highway Trust Fund and give more flexibility to the states.

And when pressed on whether the full Transportation panel would also craft its own broad infrastructure bill, Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) told The Hill, “Yeah, probably.”

Thune said it was “helpful” to learn more about the administration’s infrastructure ideas this week, but he thinks his committee will still want to offer ideas on the subject.

Across the Capitol, however, House transportation leaders have been far more reluctant to get ahead of the administration on Trump’s infrastructure package.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he’s been in contact with the administration and intends to continue shaping the infrastructure proposal after it’s released.

“I want to be in consultation with the White House to make sure whatever we do is going to put us all in the same place to move,” he told reporters this month. 

The House Transportation Committee has not announced any plans to write its own infrastructure bill.

Shuster has primarily been focused on efforts to advance a long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, whose legal authority expires at the end of September. Trump has backed Shuster’s contentious proposal to spin off air traffic control from the federal government.

“We have a timeline here that I’m focused on, and that’s Sept. 30,” Shuster said.

Some transportation advocates have viewed the Senate as the best starting point for an infrastructure bill, especially as the House GOP conference appears divided following its initial failed attempt to repeal and replace ObamaCare.

“I think on the Senate side they are closer to being able to put [an infrastructure package] together,” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future. “Chairman Shuster has got the administration to support the one thing he cares most about, so he wants to stay in their good graces.”

But Barrasso was coy about whether he thinks Trump’s infrastructure bill would be better off originating in the Senate.

“I’m not going to go there with you,” he said with a laugh.

Tags Deb Fischer John Barrasso John Thune Susan Collins

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