Senators nearing deal to save Highway Trust Fund

The Senate’s top tax writer said Tuesday that lawmakers were getting closer to a deal to shore up a Highway Trust Fund that is just weeks away from going broke.

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he has been deep in negotiations with Republicans since the Senate returned on Monday, and said on Tuesday afternoon that he hoped to be able to announce something more concrete in “the next couple hours.”

“The way I would characterize it is we are making progress on avoiding a shutdown that would in my view cost our country tens of thousands of jobs,” Wyden told reporters earlier on Tuesday.

Wyden and other top Democrats have taken to casting the looming transportation shortfall as another shutdown, less than a year after the GOP took the blame for a government shutdown that lasted more than two weeks. The Obama administration has said that allowing the trust fund to go bankrupt would cost some 700,000 jobs.

“There are a lot of transportation jobs that pay good wages,” Wyden said. “If you had a transportation shutdown here you'd end up harming some of those middle class people who actually get wages that can support families." 

Lawmakers have been searching for ways to patch, at least temporarily, the $16 billion annual hole between what the federal government spends on infrastructure projects and the revenue brought in by the gas tax. A handful of lawmakers have suggested raising the gas tax, but that idea has gained little traction on Capitol Hill.

Discussions have also touched on how long Congress should seek to patch the trust fund, with some Senate Democrats pushing for a deal to last only until the lame-duck session after November’s elections.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that he preferred a longer-term deal, but acknowledged the challenges in even getting a short-term agreement.

“We know that we have to do something on the highway bill before the August recess,” Reid told reporters. “We know that. It’s a question of what we do.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the top Republican on the Finance Committee, expressed confidence that Congress would be able to reach a deal to finance highway projects for at least a few months. 

“I think we’ll resolve this problem,” Hatch said. “But the big problem is what we'll do about the approximately $100 billion we really need to raise in the future. And we’re going to have to come up with a way of doing that.”

Keith Laing contributed.