K Street pessimistic about highway bills

Supporters of the two transportation bills stuck in the House and Senate are pessimistic either will win chamber approval now that they have lost any momentum they once had. 

Labor groups supporting the $109 billion, two-year Senate transportation bill thought that legislation could get through the upper chamber. Now, after a Senate procedural vote to move forward with the bill failed to gain 60 votes late last week, they’re not so sure. 

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“The Senate bill could be a path forward, but right now it’s not clear that’s going to happen,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Edward Wytkind said in an interview with The Hill.

Meanwhile, in the House, GOP leaders retreated from plans to hold a vote last week on a $260 billion, five-year plan that would have paid for infrastructure and road projects with revenue from expanded oil-and-gas drilling. 

Lawmakers and aides in both chambers said work will go forward on the two bills when Congress returns to Washington next week.


A Senate Democratic aide told The Hill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will open the floor to amendments on the bill and try to work out an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on which amendments would be considered germane. 

But the hiccups have increased questions about whether either bill can even win the approval of one chamber, let alone get to President Obama’s desk.  

“Hope springs eternal,” American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Vice President for Government Affairs Rob Healy said in a telephone interview. “There’s challenges, but we’re plowing ahead assuming they are going to consider these things on the floor.”

The stakes are high for Healy and other stakeholders. 

Without a new long-term transportation bill, the Highway Trust Fund could go bankrupt as early as 2014. 

Lawmakers have a little breathing room because the current surface transportation bill, which authorizes the collection of the federal gas tax supporting the trust fund, does not expire until March 31.

But approving another short-term extension by the end of March, which would be the ninth since September 2009, wouldn’t be enough to sustain the fund. 

“An extension doesn’t get you where you need to go in the short term or the long term,” Wytkind said. “The Highway Trust Fund is reaching a major point of insolvency … you can’t just do an extension, because after the fall, it’ll be running out of money.”

Healy said it’s “premature” to judge what might happen when the current transportation bill expires March 31, but he said APTA would be disappointed with another continuing resolution.

“We really would like to see something other than more multiple short-term extensions,” he said. 

In floor comments last week, Reid likewise objected to another short-term extension. 

“This legislation is too important for more delays,” Reid told his colleagues.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has tried to sound optimistic too, telling members of his caucus — even as he announced he was postponing the vote on the transportation bill — that “this debate is a debate we want to have.”

But Boehner’s decision to back away from a vote was a signal that he lacked the votes for final passage. Most Democrats in the House opposed the GOP bill, but conservative groups have also heaped criticism on it, complicating Boehner’s job. 

Boehner will likely need to make changes to his bill to get it through the Senate, and might need to make a play for the right. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes public-transit cuts in the House bill, has expressed concern about the prospects for both measures. 

“The question on the House side is what can be done with the transit funding issue,” said Janet Kavinoky, the Chamber’s executive director of transportation and infrastructure. “On the Senate side, they will need to work through some procedural issues, and they seem to be making good progress there.”

Kavinoky said the Chamber would use the recess to get in touch with lawmakers to urge them to get the transportation bills back on track.

“The idea is to get out, give people a good sense what the bill is and get them talking to their members of Congress and have them get the bill done,” she said. “We want Congress to feel like it needs to come back to Washington and get the bill done and put it to bed.”

Neither Healy nor Wytkind would guess what will happen next. 

“I’ve stopped predicting what’s going to happen in this town,” Wytkind said. “The House has become sort of a place where you’re surprised every day you wake up.”

Kevin Bogardus contributed to this story.