Senate blocks highway bill, but procedural deal could be forthcoming

The Senate on Tuesday rejected a motion to move forward with the highway bill, but a deal to proceed appears close. 

Leaders from both parties sent signals that they were close to reaching an agreement on the amendments that would be considered on the highway bill, the sticking point that has prevented a final vote. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged his members to oppose cloture prior to the vote, saying that doing so could clinch floor votes for amendments including one to speed construction and operation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. 

"I would point out there are demands for amendments on both sides and we are very close to getting an agreement,” said McConnell. “I think a 'no' vote is not an end for the bill but a beginning.”

The 52-44 vote on Tuesday prevented the Senate from moving to a final vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) office had hoped to reach a procedural deal before the vote, but might have seen the cloture vote as a way to put pressure on the GOP.

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"Sixty of us could vote to move to this transportation bill — to get rid of polarizing amendments — why not move to something that was voted unanimously out of our committee?" asked Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "Today we can end all this dithering and waste of time."

The highway bill would reauthorize the federal aid highway and highway safety construction programs. Lawmakers must at least approve a short-term extension of the highway bill or programs will run out of money on March 31. 

The House has also been struggling to approve a highway bill, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday said his chamber might pass the Senate's version of the $109 billion highway bill. This followed a decision by GOP leaders in the House to retreat from both the five-year bill and a shorter, 18-month proposal that still angered staunch conservatives in the House Republican caucus. 

The technical amendment Republicans blocked on Tuesday was offered by Reid and included 37 germane amendments that were agreed to by both parties. The package, however, excluded all of the nearly 100 non-germane amendments propose by senators from both sides of the aisle. 

Boxer dismissed the bulk of the non-germane amendments as "inflammatory” and said they had no business being attached to the federal transportation bill, which has now been stuck on the Senate floor for almost a month. 

"If you vote to prolong debate you will have to answer your folks back home and tell them why you are playing Russian roulette with the highway bill because it all stops on March 31,” she concluded.

Boxer warned lawmakers that they did not have the option of passing another continuing resolution for highway programs, as they have done eight times since the last federal highway authorization measure expired in 2009. She said the Highway Trust Fund, which funds projects and receives money from a federal gas tax, is in jeopardy with a reauthorization. The trust fund isn't taking in enough money from the tax to pay for projects. 

"This is different because the trust fund is deficient of funds," she said. "You can't just extend. If you extend, there is a price to be paid." 

—Russell Berman contributed to this report.