House, Senate strike deal on transportation bill, student loans

Senate and House negotiators have struck a deal to combine the transportation reauthorization, student loan bill and flood insurance legislation in a package expected to pass by the end of the week, according to congressional sources.

The package likely represents the last significant burst of legislating before the election, as lawmakers will become increasingly preoccupied by message votes and electioneering in the weeks ahead.

ADVERTISEMENT
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told reporters on Wednesday afternoon details of the deal would emerge later in the evening, just in time to meet a deadline to allow House lawmakers to vote on it Friday before leaving for the July 4 recess.

Lawmakers could not finish drafting the bill in time to post it online by 12 a.m. Thursday, which means House GOP leaders will either have to waive the three-day rule for reviewing legislation before a vote or delay passage until Saturday.

A senior aide familiar with the negotiations said the bill would be posted sometime after 1 a.m. Thursday and lawmakers on the conference committee would sign it later in the morning. 

The legislation would maintain transportation funding at current levels through the end of fiscal 2014. It would also extend federal subsidies for college student loans. Rates for Stafford loans were due to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 at the end of the month without congressional action.

Senate leaders announced an agreement on paying for student loan subsidies earlier in the week but cautioned final agreement would depend on a sign-off from House Republicans.

A House GOP leadership aide and Senate aides familiar with the negotiations confirmed the legislation will include flood insurance language that stalled in the Senate earlier this week over a fight on a abortion-related amendment pushed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). This allows Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to avoid a floor fight over the definition of when life begins.

To secure a deal on transportation, House Republicans agreed to drop their demands for language expediting the authorization of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline and loosening regulations on coal ash. In return, they won a concession from Democrats to streamline permitting of transportation projects.

Inhofe defended the changes to permitting regulations.

“Keystone and coal ash are really one-shot deals. If you get on streamlining that is for the next decade or so,” he said. 

Inhofe said the bicameral deal could pass the Senate by a bigger margin than the transportation bill the upper chamber passed by a vote of 74-22 in March. 

“I think the vote probably would be better in the Senate than it was when we passed the Senate bill,” he said.

Inhofe and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) touted the deal in a joint press release issued shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday morning.

“I couldn’t be more pleased to announce, along with my partner Sen. Inhofe, that we have a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on a transportation bill which saves and creates millions of jobs,” Boxer said. “Not only will this reform bill provide a boost to the economy and the construction industry, but it is a big win for the middle class, business and our environment.”

Inhofe highlighted conservative reforms, such as consolidating and eliminating overlapping programs and shrinking the length of environmental reviews.

“As with any compromise, we didn’t get everything we wanted, but I believe we truly have a good bill — one conservatives can be proud to support,” he said.  

Reid had hoped to pass the package through the Senate on Thursday but will need unanimous consent from 99 colleagues. A single objection could delay the schedule. The drafting delay could affect his schedule if senators press for more time to review it.

A Democratic aide said the transportation portion of the bill was patterned largely on the Senate legislation, which cost $109 billion. Transportation funding has been increased to $120 billion to maintain programs through 2014, the aide said.
 


The package will also include the Restore Act, a priority of Gulf-state senators, which ensures a large majority share of the money from fines related to the 2010 BP oil spill will go to their states, according to a senior Senate aide.  

A press release issued by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) touted the absence of earmarks in the bill, contrasting it to the last transportation authorization, which he said included over 6,300 pet projects.

“This agreement will help strengthen our nation’s construction industry and provide stability to highway, bridge and infrastructure projects across the country,” Mica said in a statement.
 
The deal spares Congress from having to pass a 10th stopgap measure to reauthorize transportation programs, a habit that has dwindled the highway trust fund to the point of near-bankruptcy.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who worked on finding offsets for the bill, lauded the agreement: "This investment in our transportation system is an investment in more than a million jobs, our economy and our future. Our economy needs a 21st-century highway system that meets the needs of our communities, helps our businesses grow and creates jobs. This agreement will also make a high-quality education affordable for millions of students across the country."

Baucus added that money for the highway trust funds would come from the general treasury fund, which would be replenished by a change to pension interest rates and an increase in Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation premiums.

The deal reflected House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) desire not to allow Democrats to distract from what he considers President Obama’s failed economic record by drawing Republicans into major legislative stalemates. While Republicans secured some key reforms to transportation spending, the agreement lacks two longstanding priorities for Boehner — a link between increased domestic oil production and infrastructure spending, and a provision mandating the construction of the Keystone pipeline.

House conservatives grumbled about the packaging of several unrelated pieces of legislation into one bill right before a deadline — a practice they campaigned against in 2010.

“I think we need get back to a single-subject [approach],” freshman Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) said.

Scott bemoaned the absence of the Keystone language.

“I think it’s a loss for America if Keystone is not in the bill. With that said, that one factor won’t determine my vote, yes or no,” he said. “But it’s absolutely unbelievable that Harry Reid and the president would continue to hold up things that would reduce the cost of energy in this country.”

Freshmen on the House-Senate conference committee defended the deal as a classic legislative accord in which both parties compromised.

“For a divided House and Senate to get this done is a big deal, so I think it’s a win for the Congress to get it done,” Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said. “Some issues we met more than halfway, and some issues not.


“It’s a good bill, at the end of the day,” he added.

Lankford said he was “not a fan of combining all these issues into one” but that it would not cost leadership his support.

House Republicans also acknowledged they were up against the clock, with the student loan and transportation deadlines looming.

“That incentivizes people to want to get things done,” said Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.).

Ross, who voted against the transportation bill that passed the House and for the student loan bill, said he would have to take a deeper look at the package before deciding whether to support it.
 


Republican Reps. John Kline (Minn.) and Tom Cole (Okla.) both said that they would likely support a deal that had been given the OK by their leadership.
 


House Democrats are expected to vote for the package in large numbers despite complaints they were shut out of the final bicameral negotiations and language allowing states to opt out of spending money on bike and pedestrian safety projects.

“Given the fact that we now have hard info, this looks like a good, solid bill that will put people back to work,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a member of the conference committee.

He said the provisions on bike and pedestrian improvements would not affect Oregon.

“Some unenlightened states like Texas will [opt out], but states like mine will continue to invest,” he said.

Keith Laing and Bernie Becker contributed to this report. 

This story was posted on June 28 at 7:13 p.m. and has been updated.