CQ TODAY ONLINE NEWS
June 20, 2012 – 12:31 a.m.
Leaders Press to Finish Highway Bill
By Nathan Hurst and Richard E. Cohen, CQ Staff
House and Senate leaders committed to completing a highway bill conference agreement this week, after a top-level meeting in the Speaker’s office that rekindled flagging hopes of avoiding another extension of surface transportation programs.
Senate Majority Leader
Mica, a Florida Republican who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters the leaders committed to working “something out this week on the bill — the full bill. That’s all we talked about.”
Boxer said there was “not really” any talk of another extension, which would be the 10th since the 2005 surface transportation law (PL 109-59) expired in Sept. 2009. The California Democrat said participants “agreed we should get a bill, and I intend to do everything in my power to get it done.”
The meeting Tuesday followed growing concern by transportation interests that conferees would not reach an agreement before the current authorization (PL 112-102) lapses at the end of this month. To avoid a shutdown of highway funding, Congress would need either to clear a short-term extension to buy conferees more time or yield to Boehner’s threat of a six-month extension that would defer action on a bill until after the elections.
Interest groups, including such heavyweights as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said another unfunded extension would put the Highway Trust Fund — already projected to run out of money next year without a boost in revenue — in peril.
“The general feeling is that it’s taken us so long to get to this point, there’s no reason to hit the reset button if there’s a reasonable chance to get it done,” said one industry lobbyist.
A spokesman for Boehner laid out the Speaker’s expectations for the conference’s outcome.
“Chairman Mica and our House negotiators continue to work toward a bicameral agreement, and they have the full support of House leadership and the House Republican Conference,” spokesman Michael Steel said in a Tuesday statement. “We believe it is crucial that we have real reforms in how we spend taxpayers’ highway dollars, and we continue to support bipartisan jobs initiatives like Keystone.”
Those “reforms” include further concessions from the Senate on demands to consolidate Transportation Department programs, ease environmental permitting and let states opt out of spending funds on enhancements such as highway beautification or bicycle paths.
With agreement on those areas, an aide suggested, differences over House demands for expedited approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, looser EPA regulation of coal ash and the direction of most BP oil spill penalties to Gulf states can be resolved. An industry lobbyist said Tuesday that aides have been working on the coal ash issue and expressed confidence that they could reach a compromise if the transportation issues are resolved.
The developments Tuesday indicated some flexibility on the part of House negotiators, who have frustrated Senate conferees by insisting on the inclusion of provisions contained in a House highway bill (
Leaders Press to Finish Highway Bill
Senators say the bill (
House Republicans have complained that senators have been unwilling to compromise. Conservative House Republicans
But Boxer said Tuesday she had asked Mica “to meet continually over the next several days to achieve this deadline” of reaching a deal this week.
The House is expected to vote Wednesday on a procedural motion by Minnesota Democrat
“Simply extending is punting and will undermine confidence in the economy,” Hoyer said. “I don’t think we ought to do an extension.”
Even if conferees succeed in finishing work on the transportation titles, Boehner and Reid would still probably have to negotiate directly on the remaining issues, including the House GOP’s energy policy demands and budget offsets to cover a gap between Highway Trust Fund tax receipts and authorized spending levels.
Humberto Sanchez and Alan K. Ota contributed to this story.