In early March, the heads of 16 federal agencies gathered around a table in the White House to craft President Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
Led by Gary Cohn, the National Economic Council director and former president of Goldman Sachs, the officials mapped out a six-part strategy to reinvigorate the nation’s bridges, railways, and sewers. New projects would be solicited, existing projects expedited, and new funding streams examined. Sweeping policy and regulatory changes would be explored. The goal was to fulfill Trump's promise to usher in “a new program of national rebuilding,” as the President put it in his first address to Congress.
“America is suffering from a massive infrastructure deficit—crumbling and dilapidated roads, bridges, airports, and tunnels,” Trump said in a March 29 statement to TIME. “We need members of both parties—partnering with industry and workers—to join together to repair, rebuild and renew the infrastructure of the United States.”
Administration officials have long viewed infrastructure spending as a rare opportunity to join forces with congressional Democrats. But if Republicans hope to put points on the board with a bipartisan infrastructure package, the plan being developed inside the White House is not likely to hold much appeal for Trump's opponents.
While the President boasts about boosting U.S. infrastructure and stimulating the economy with shiny new projects, on paper he has consistently embraced a far more conservative strategy, one that fits with the broader White House push to dismantle federal regulations. As a result, rather than become a vehicle for bipartisan cooperation, there are already signs that infrastructure may be the latest legislative item to get caught in Washington’s partisan logjam.
In a series of recent interviews with TIME, Administration officials outlined the White House’s plans for meeting Trump’s goal of $1 trillion in infrastructure spending. The strategy, aides say, is to shell out between $100 billion to $200 billion in federal dollars, while overhauling the regulatory process, cutting regulations and offering tax credits to private companies. The White House argues the total package will propel the effective spending total well above Trump’s target.
“If we were to take our 10-year [project approval] process, and shrink it down to a two-year process, that in and of itself would create trillions of dollars of economic activity,” a White House official says. “Trillions.”
Relying on private investment to fund national infrastructure projects is a far more conservative strategy than what Trump touted on the campaign trail. "Sometimes you have to prime the pump," he told TIME after his election last year. The approach would almost certainly foreclose any chances of winning the support of Democrats, who favor direct federal spending for infrastructure projects. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and several colleagues have proposed $1 trillion in direct spending to repair the country’s roads, bridges and ports. Trump’s public-private partnership plan falls far short of that, which is one reason why Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon calls it a “nonstarter.”
Yet the White House's priority has been process reforms, rather than a construction wish list. “We would love to make this process shorter, less expensive, more certain, and make it more transparent,” said a White House official. “It shouldn’t take 10 years to approve a major project.” In one demonstration of the red tape snarling projects, White House aides prepared a flow chart of required regulatory sign-off for a hypothetical highway that spans six taped-together sheets of paper.
Critics of the White House’s approach argue the bureaucratic processes at federal agencies are important safeguards, designed to ensure, for example, that projects don’t contaminate streams or damage historic places. White House officials say they have no intention of rolling back protections, but that they want to make the process speedier and more predictable. “We have very important environmental stewardship responsibilities. We have very important financial stewardship responsibilities," says the official. "We need to protect those, but it shouldn’t take 10 years to approve a major project.”
Inside the Administration, Cohn's council is working with the newly formed White House Office of American Innovation, led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. The office has a mandate to pursue “transformational” infrastructure projects. Among the projects under consideration are a push for nationwide broadband, a plan to modernize the electric grid with a focus on growing alternative energy sources and storage capacity, and investing in faster rail lines in the U.S.’s heavily trafficked Northeast Corridor. Administration officials point to new private-sector development in the latter two areas by companies controlled by Elon Musk—who sits on Trump’s business advisory council—as an example of how the White House can link “really great ideas and people in a way that the White House can add value,” another White House official told TIME.
In an effort to generate support in recent weeks, Administration officials have stepped up outreach to governors and mayors, members of Congress and agency officials to identify roadblocks. Meanwhile, White House aides and the President have hosted CEOs, labor leaders and other stakeholders seeking input on how to boost infrastructure.
Trump has also offered frequent input. The President is a former developer with a long history of overseeing building projects, and aides say his interest in infrastructure far exceeds his appetite for the details of the health care package that failed earlier this month. As the White House prepared the presidential permit to clear the way for the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, Trump pressed his aides on technical specifications, from the thickness of the steel used to the depth it will be buried to the spacing between pumping stations. In at least one instance, Trump has reviewed engineering drawings. “He has this sort of natural affinity for infrastructure,” the first official said.
Administration officials hope the efforts to streamline regulations—which will be measured in months, if not years—will be enough to win over support from conservative lawmakers opposed to new government spending. The White House hasn't yet settled on a definite source of funding to pay for the expanded federal investment.
It remains unclear whether the White House will try to combine an infrastructure package with the tax reform plan congressional Republicans are hoping to take up in the coming months. Combining the two could increase the odds of winning over some Democratic support—and could provide a funding stream—but would make an already complex process even more difficult.
In the meantime, Capitol Hill lawmakers are awaiting guidance. As of Monday afternoon, Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chair of the Senate’s infrastructure subcommittee, had yet to speak with the White House about how to proceed on any bill. “It’s my subcommittee, so we want to be on the cutting edge of that,” Inhofe told TIME. “We’re just not far along enough on that because of all the other things [we’re] involved in.”
Republicans and Democrats still say they hope to find common ground on an infrastructure package, an area in which both sides generally support funding. “Everybody knows that we Democrats believe you need greater investment in infrastructure. Mr. Trump said he thinks we need greater investment,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic whip. “That’s something certainly that we can work on, but good faith is the underlying requirement.”
The plan the White House is pursuing suggests the prospects for bipartisanship are dimming.
With reporting by Sam Frizell/Washington