Wyden: Still time for highway bill

Greg Nash

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Tuesday that there is still time to deal with amendments to a nearly $11 billion bill to extend federal transportation funding before the Senate. 

Republican leaders in the House have insisted that the Senate accept their version of the transportation funding measure as is because the Department of Transportation has warned it will have to begin cutting road payments to states on Friday unless Congress acts to refill its Highway Trust Fund. 

The GOP measure would extend road and transit funding until May 2015, and lawmakers in the lower chamber have argued since they approved their bill last week that the eight-month extension is the only viable way to prevent a transportation funding bankruptcy this week.  

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Wyden said Tuesday as he was offering an amendment that would shorten the deadline to Dec. 31, to allow for a possible long-term extension to be crafted after the November elections, that there was still time left to reshape the funding package. 

“Congress has addressed much bigger pieces of legislation and the difference between the House and Senate on tight timeframes in the past,” he said. 

Wyden said he took issue with Republican leaders arguing that “there’s just not enough time” to make changes to the House bill, which was approved earlier this month on 367-55 vote. 

“This work is going to be done this week,” he said. “This is non-negotiable. The Congress is going to get this resolved. In no way, shape or form are we going to have the transportation equivalent of a government shutdown.” 

The House version of the transportation funding measure relies on so-called “pension smoothing” — a proposal that budget experts across the ideological spectrum have dubbed a gimmick — and boosting customs user fees to generate $10.9 billion to extend federal highway funding until next year. 

Wyden said Thursday that Senate Democrats have accepted the House GOP’s proposal to pay for the transportation funding with money from other areas of the federal budget, even though their initial version of the bill squeezed less money out of both those policies and added a variety of other measures. 

GOP leaders have expressed confidence that the Senate will ultimately accept their version of the transportation funding package because neither party is eager to be blamed for shutting down construction projects in the middle of an election year. 

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made it clear Tuesday that the House wasn’t about to reopen the highway debate.

“I just want to make clear: If the Senate sends a highway bill over here with those provisions, we’re just going to strip it out,” Boehner told reporters.

Wyden accused Republicans of saying “it’s our way or no highway” by signaling that it would reject any amendments that are added to the measure by the Senate.  

“For us to just accept it today would be to abdicate our responsibilities,” Wyden said. “I believe the approach that we’ve built in the Finance Committee is a more responsible approach and certainly there is time to compromise.” 

Despite the back-and-forth, Senate aides insisted Tuesday that even with the delay, they still expected the House bill would go to President Obama’s desk this week. Some Republicans sympathetic to Wyden’s bill worried that it’s too much of a risk to send a different bill back to the House now.

“At this point, it almost becomes a question of what’s the best way to get it to the finish line,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of the Finance Committee. 

Thune, a member of GOP leadership, added that he preferred his committee’s approach, but said the House and Senate bills were too similar to get too worked up.

“The one thing that we do know will pass the House is the House-passed bill,” Thune said.

The Senate is debating a series of amendments to the transportation funding bill on Tuesday afternoon, including a measure from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to gradually reduce the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents. 

The gas tax has been the traditional source for transportation projects since the creation of the Highway Trust Fund in the 1950s. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and it has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses as cars have become more fuel efficient. 

Lee’s amendment would largely undo the current gas tax collection system and transfer authority over federal highways and transit programs to states and replace current congressional appropriations with block grants. 

—Bernie Becker contributed to this report.