Highway Bill Debate Paul Ryan's First Road Test as House Speaker

by Luke Russert /  / Updated 

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After his first House GOP Conference meeting as speaker, Paul Ryan declared that House Republicans would be going on “offense.”

“We’re going to go on offense,” Ryan told reporters on Tuesday. “We’re going to go on offense on ideas and give the country a bold alternative agenda because we don’t think the country is heading in the right direction right now.”

“The highway bill is a good place to start,” Ryan said.

The first issue Paul Ryan has to tackle as speaker is how to move much needed monies to the beleaguered Highway Trust Fund. The Highway Trust Fund is routinely underfunded because a politically apprehensive Congress has not raised the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax in decades.

Related: Six Things to Know About the Highway Funding Fight

Last week the House and Senate punted the highway bill by passing a three week extension that moved the deadline to Nov. 20th. But unless something is done, the fund runs out of cash on that date.

The Senate passed their bill multi-year bipartisan highway bill by a vote of 65-34 in July. The House did not like some aspects of the Senate bill, specifically some of the "pay-fors" which is congressional speak for how something is paid for.

Over the last few months, the House Transportation Committee has been working on a six year funding bill that would cost $325 billion dollars. It was passed out of committee in a unanimous bipartisan vote in mid-October.

It's slated to go to the House Floor this week. The idea is that once the House passes their version, it'll go to "Conference Committee" with the Senate and lawmakers are optimistic they can beat the November 20th deadline.

While the process looks pretty straightforward, Speaker Ryan could still encounter some problems.

When he ran for speaker, Paul Ryan said he favored an "open process" and "regular order."

“We’re opening up the process and allowing members to participate in a way the founders intended,” Ryan said Tuesday as he used the upcoming highway bill debate as an example.

However, what amendments move forward is determined by the House Rules Committee.

That committee is almost always stacked with speaker loyalists, in this case, many of the members who were loyal to Boehner are now loyal to Ryan. Nevertheless, the speaker, unofficially determines what amendments move forward.

If Ryan wants to kill an amendment, he could have the Rules Committee do it.

Since Ryan pledged to allow amendments, it remains to be seen which ones specifically will get through the Rules Committee today and tomorrow.

Ryan is under pressure to show face by allowing the process to be as open as possible. If he doesn't, it could be problematic with his conservative flank.

However, with more than 250 amendments being submitted, discretion with the Rules Committee will be used.

And there is at least one amendment to the highway bill that could prove problematic for Ryan — one dealing with the Export-Import Bank.

Related: Six Things to Know About the Export-Import Bank

The Export-Import Bank has drawn criticism from both liberals and conservatives for engaging in "crony capitalism" for favoring some companies over others. In recent months it has become a conservative crusade to kill the bank.

Speaker Ryan himself opposes it. However, when it got to the House floor in October it got a slight majority of the House GOP Conference in support. So under Ryan's pledge, since the majority of the conference is in favor of something, it should be allowed a vote.

The bank’s reauthorization is currently in the Senate highway bill that’s being amended on the House Floor.

House Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, told NBC News that amendments for and against the Export-Import Bank would be allowed. It’s assumed some would restructure the bank or and others would kill it off completely.

Conservatives could get angry if Ryan himself does not stop the reauthorization, however, the speaker seems to be resigned to following regular order.

Rep. Steve Fincher. R-Tennessee, who has spearheaded the reauthorization effort told NBC News, “Paul Ryan is a good guy and I think he will do great. I agree with him on 99.99% But he can be wrong every once in a while. He has been wrong before. And he can be wrong on this issue and we can still win as long as the majority of the members get our chance to beat back these amendments we can win. We are confident.”

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