It's looking ever more unlikely Capitol Hill will craft a long-term highway bill this year

Senate maneuver may well dead-end a long-term highway bill anytime this year

July 11, 2014

In a bid to expedite a short-term extension of highway programs, the Senate Finance Committee yesterday approved compromise legislation that authorizes enough funding to cover needs through May 2015.

The compromise represents a sharp departure from Chairman Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) original plan, which would have continued funding only through Dec. 31, 2014. That deadline would have forced Congress to address the highway trust fund again this year.

Many pundits expect Republicans to take control of the Senate in the next Congress, so many Democrats want to act this year on a longer-term highway bill.  

The thinking behind the original Dec. 31, 2014, deadline was that in the lame-duck session that will follow the election, lawmakers– including those who lose in November– would be more inclined to take steps to provide for long-term highway investment, perhaps including an increase in fuel taxes as proposed by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bob Corker (R-TN) or by Sen. Thomas Carper (D-DE).

The Senate committee’s action came later on the same day that the House Ways and Means Committee approved an extension that explicitly extends funding through May 2015.

Spending authority for the highway trust fund ends Sept. 30, but a short-term fix is even more urgent as the Dept. of Transportation expects the trust fund to run out of cash in August.

“Allowing the Highway Trust Fund to go insolvent next month, clogging the roads Americans use every day and costing us hundreds of thousands of jobs, would be legislative malpractice and I’m not willing to let that happen,” Sen. Wyden said yesterday in announcing a deal struck between he and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Ranking Member of the Finance Committee.

Later that day, in introducing the compromise to committee members, Wyden said that with the trust fund “getting closer to running on fumes, Congress must get beyond the gridlock where each faction says, ‘It’s my way, or no highway’.”

Under the Wyden-Hatch deal, the committee acted to: 1) Strike the Dec. 31, 2014, expiration for trust fund spending authority and 2) Boosted the revenue raise so there will be enough money to fund highway programs (which include funding the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Admin.) through May of next year, based on current projections of spending needs.

Wyden and Hatch had tried to reach agreement with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) so that both panels could advance identical short-term bills. However, they were unable to strike a deal.

Even so, the language of the two bills is much closer than initially as they now provide for, in effect, the same duration and total revenues. The new Senate bill drops some revenue-raisers that were controversial in Camp’s House committee.

The Senate bill approved by the Finance Committee also adopts some elements of Camp’s House bill. But there remain potentially difficult issues surrounding the revenue proposals.

That’s because Camp’s bill uses funds for highways that many Democrats still want to use for an extension of unemployment benefits.

Republicans and Democrats still have some issues to sort out.

But the bigger conflict in the Senate might be among Democrats-- who are split among those focused squarely on keeping highway spending flowing and those who want to keep the pressure on to get a long-term deal this year.

Although the Senate Finance Committee approved the highway program extension by voice vote, committee Democrats were split on an amendment proposed by Carper, a Democrat, to delete about $3 billion in revenues.

That measure that would have ended highway spending before the end of this year and forced Congress to act again this year, possibly in lame-duck session.

Carper, who also chairs an Environment & Public Works (EPW) Subcommittee on Transportation & Infrastructure, argued that without such deadline discipline, Congress would never deal with long-term challenges.

“The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome,” said Carper during the Finance Committee markup.

“Over the last five years we have kicked the can down the road on the highway trust fund 11 times… and that uncertainty has kept states and cities from being able to plan and build transportation investments that have the biggest impact on our economy,” he stated. “So there is no reason, I think, to feel that punting on this issue to the next Congress yet again will magically yield a different result.”

Carper’s amendment failed with 10 in favor and 14 against. Five Democrats and all but three Republicans sided with Wyden against Carper’s amendment, which won the support of seven Democrats.

Even though Wyden opposed Carper’s amendment in the interest of preserving a bipartisan compromise, he declared support for Carper’s position: “I do want to state publicly that I am totally committed to working with Sen. Carper to get a long-term funding bill done this year.”

Wyden has more to worry about than just members of his own committee, however. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs EPW, was diplomatic in her reaction to her fellow Democrat’s legislation, but she made it clear that she isn’t giving up.

"I am really grateful that there was bipartisan support in the Finance Committee for a shorter-term patch for the Highway Trust Fund,” Boxer said. “We still have an opportunity to pass a long-term bill this year, and I will pursue a December deadline so this Congress is forced to deal with solving the transportation crisis that we face in the Highway Trust Fund."

But just the day before, Boxer had sharper words for Rep. Camp’s bill for doing essentially the same thing that the Finance Committee bill does.

"The House's plan to kick the can down the road and pass a temporary patch for the Highway Trust Fund until next May derails the effort to pass a long-term transportation bill this year,” said Boxer. “This ill-conceived proposal would prolong uncertainty for business, local governments and the states, and would create another financial crisis right before the next construction season.”

During the Finance Committee’s consideration of the bill on Thursday, Sen. Hatch remarked that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) had committed to bringing the committee’s version of the short-term fix to the Senate floor without any changes.

But what will happen once the bill is on the floor is unclear.

About the Author

Avery Vise | Contributing editor

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