CQ TODAY ONLINE NEWS
Sept. 15, 2011 – 10:46 p.m.
Senate Averts Transportation Shutdown
By Kathryn A. Wolfe and Alan K. Ota, CQ Staff
The Senate came to the brink of shutting down the Federal Aviation Administration again but stepped back after a flurry of bipartisan negotiations avoided a stalemate on extending transportation programs.
The eleventh-hour deal persuaded a lone holdout to drop opposition to a vote on the bill (
Federal aviation programs were scheduled to expire at midnight Friday, partially shutting down FAA operations, throwing thousands of the agency’s employees out of work and halting airport construction projects for the second time this summer. The bill would extend aviation programs through January and surface transportation programs through March.
Coburn eventually relented, saying he won assurances that the next multi-year highway bill will include his language allowing states to opt out of the enhancements. “The next bill coming six months from now will have an opt-out,” he said. “It’s not going to be an extension. There’s going to be a bill. It will be in the bill. We’ve got an agreement that the next bill will be an opt-out for people on enhancements.”
The senior senator from Oklahoma, Republican
“Sen. Inhofe agrees with Sen. Coburn’s concerns and worked with Sen. Boxer to reach a compromise in the two-year highway bill,” read a statement released by Inhofe spokesman Matt Dempsey. Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which California Democrat
After the vote, Boxer quibbled with Coburn’s description of what will be in the next highway bill. Boxer said she and Inhofe had worked out “reforms” in the transportation enhancements section of the bill and met with Coburn to discuss them before the deal was worked out.
“We felt he would be pleased with the reforms,” she said. “It gives flexibility, without doing damage to the important programs in there.”
Boxer said Coburn made clear that he was “not going to vote for any more extensions” but allowed the current highway funding extension to move forward. “There’s not an opt-out,” she said. “You’ll see what we did. But no, there’s no opt-out. . . . There’s still dedicated funding. It gives more flexibility to the states as to how they will use that funding. . . . It’s flexibility for the states within the transportation enhancements program.”
Passing a multi-year surface transportation bill in six months would be an ambitious schedule, since the two-year reauthorization that Boxer and Inhofe have drafted has not been introduced. They are waiting for Finance Chairman
“Today was a very rough day,” Boxer said after the compromise was reached.
That’s a sentiment that echoed across Capitol Hill, where partisan and ideological divisions have turned the once routine practice of extending expiring transportation programs into fierce battles.
Senate Averts Transportation Shutdown
Coburn argued that in a time when bridges and roads are in disrepair, there are more important things to spend limited transportation dollars on than bike lanes. His proposal would let states decide whether to spend the funds set for enhancements on priorities they deem more pressing.
According to the National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse, a cooperation between the Federal Highway Administration and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, just under 50 percent of transportation enhancements funding in fiscal 2010 was spent on biking and pedestrian facilities. The next largest category, at just less than 19 percent, went to landscaping and scenic beautification.
Some Democrats countered that spending on transportation enhancements was important to maintain, and that in any case an extension was an inappropriate venue for making such a significant policy change. Reid went so far as to call Coburn a “dictator” for insisting until the compromise was reached that his proposal be written into the bill, rather than accepting a floor vote on an amendment.
Boxer pointed out that the transportation enhancements program was created by John H. Chafee, R-R.I., and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., in 1991.
“Twenty years, we’ve had that program. Can we look at it, can we reform it, can we make it work better? Of course,” Boxer said — but not as part of an extension.
In the end, the only amendments to the bill offered on the floor came from
One would have limited surface transportation spending to levels that are sustainable by the Highway Trust Fund’s motor fuels tax receipts. That was defeated 14-84.
The other amendment would have held FAA spending to fiscal 2008 levels, while ensuring “adequate resources” for projects such as the transition to a satellite-based air traffic control system. It was defeated 36-61.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this story.