Rep. Bill Shuster will likely have to wait a little longer to accomplish his long-held ambition to privatize the nation's government-run air traffic control system.
But in what can be considered progress, the House is expected to vote this week on Shuster's provision as part of a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, whose funding expires Sept. 30.
"I have never felt bad if I am the underdog," Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the Washington Examiner. "I am perfectly fine with people saying I won't get it done. I am just going to move forward inch by inch. I feel confident."
Even if the bill with the air traffic control provision passes, as Shuster expects, it won't become law as written because the Senate's version of the FAA bill does not include the privatization concept, and the two chambers won't have time to reconcile their differences.
The House and Senate will likely approve a short-term extension of FAA's current authorization, delaying the adoption of major reforms for another day as Congress faces multiple must-pass deadlines this month.
Shuster knows critics will view this development, or lack thereof, as just another congressional punting, and more evidence the Trump administration and GOP-led Congress can't advance an agenda.
Yet, Shuster and other supporters of air traffic control privatization see things differently.
His proposal to privatize air traffic control failed to make it the House floor last year. This year, the initiative has the backing of President Trump, who stumped for the idea with a major speech in June, pushing it as a leading plank of his infrastructure investment agenda.
Shuster and outside advocates say the White House and Trump's Department of Transportation, if not the president himself, remain engaged in pursuing air traffic control privatization, even amid a lack of progress toward moving a wider infrastructure bill.
"There are any number of possibilities for advancing air traffic control privatization," said James Burnley, who served as transportation secretary during the Reagan administration, and has been encouraging Republican lawmakers to support the plan.
"Certainly working out in conference is one way to do it, and if they don't do that before Sept. 30, they can revisit it before the FAA's funding expires again," Burney told the Washington Examiner. "Air traffic control reform can also be a part of another bill, perhaps a big infrastructure bill this fall or early next year. There is not just one path."
Burnley and Shuster say Trump's advocacy for privatization has helped sway conservative Republicans, along with members of the House General Aviation Caucus, whose more than 200 members carry major weight.
"His involvement does matter, and I don't have any criticism of the degree of [Trump's] involvement," Burnley said. "He talks about infrastructure all the time. In the 35 years I've been paying attention to transportation, he's doing as much or more as I've ever seen on major infrastructure issues, like reform of air traffic control."
Shuster's proposal would transfer air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration to a non-profit corporation governed by a board of directors, and the FAA said it's time for change.
"The FAA is fully committed to reforms that would provide more efficient acquisition and predictable, sustainable funding to modernize our nation's air traffic control system," the FAA said in a statement. "If our nation is to remain the global aviation gold standard, a new approach is needed to match growing demand and the pace of emerging technology."
Critics, including lawmakers serving rural states, worry smaller airports and general aviation, such as private pilots and business jets, will lose under a nonprofit governed by a board composed of industry players.
The National Business Aviation Association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, two industry groups, are continuing to press lawmakers to oppose Shuster's privatization plan.
"Most people believe taking our public air space and the air traffic control system that serves it and turning it over to 13 unelected unaccountable individuals chosen by special interests is a fundamentally flawed idea and we have not changed our position on that," Ed Bolen, CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, told the Washington Examiner.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association did not make anyone available to speak with the Washington Examiner for this story.
Shuster says Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., a general aviation pilot and co-sponsor of the FAA bill who is also co-chair of the House General Aviation Caucus, led negotiations to adopt provisions in the privatization bill meant to address those concerns.
One measure requires providers to continue to offer flight service to places that receive it now, meaning rural areas would not be ignored.
Supporters say the proposal exempts all general aviation from being charged user fees, unless Congress passes a separate law specifically saying otherwise, and allows general aviation users to pay into the system the same way they do now.
"In my 16 years in Congress, I have never seen a bill where one stakeholder [general aviation] got everything they want," Shuster said. "They did, and still came out against the bill, which is disconcerting to me. They got everything they wanted. I don't understand."
While Shuster predicts he can overcome any outstanding opposition, other proponents of his plan worry about the likely lack of immediate resolution.
"I would hate to see a whole other year of debating and arguing over air traffic control privatization, but that may be what we end up with," Robert Poole, a transportation expert with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, told the Washington Examiner.