Transportation lobby sees road to short-term highway spending legislation

Transportation industry observers are not expecting the House to take up the $109 billion transportation bill passed last week by the Senate before the end of the month, increasing the necessity of a short-term extension, which leaders in both chambers have said they hope to avoid.

Democrats have sought to pressure Republicans into approving the two-year transportation bill that was passed this week by the Senate with 74 votes, labeling it a bipartisan way to avoid interrupting the collection of the federal gas tax at the end of the month.

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But the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation’s President Joshua Schank said on Friday that he does not think the House will act before March 31, which is when the current funding for road and transit projects is scheduled to expire.

“You know how it works in Washington; you either have urgency or you don’t. We have lost urgency,” Schank said in an interview.

“If the House is not going to put a bill out until April, then you have to have an extension,” he said. “That opens a debate out how long it needs to be.” 

Both House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Democratic leaders in the Senate have indicated they want to avoid passing what would be a ninth temporary extension of the surface transportation bill that expired in 2009. Boehner’s preferred option is for the House to pass a bill that would spend $260 billion on transportation projects over the next five years, but that measure has come under fire from both Democrats who argue it spends too little and Republicans who argue it spends too much.

The Speaker has previously indicated he would be open to attempting to pass the Senate’s version, but Boehner’s office said this week that no decisions would be finalized by GOP leaders “until they’ve discussed the situation with our members.” 

The House returns to session for the next two weeks before breaking for an Easter recess, but Schank said there is not enough time for any meaningful negotiations between the chambers even if the House passed a transportation bill of its own before the March 31 deadline.

“How do you conference those (bills) in a reasonable amount of time, especially in this political environment … in an election year?” he said.

Neither the Senate-passed bill nor the House GOP's own highway bill were on the floor schedule for next week, released Friday afternoon by the office of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

The Senate's version of the transportation measure does not include a controversial link between infrastructure projects and increased domestic oil drilling, which House Republicans want. Democrats in the upper chamber have vocally pressured Republicans in the House to just accept the bill they have passed, pointing to the same calendar as Schank.

“When you have a bill that gets 74 votes at a time when everything is so contentious, you barely squeak by on most of these votes, they ought to take a serious look at taking this bill up and passing it,” Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a news conference immediately after the vote.  

The White House got in on the act, too, issuing a statement praising the Senate for passing the transportation bill and saying that it was “hopeful that the House will move swiftly and in similarly bipartisan fashion to do the same.”

AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department (TTD) President Edward Wytkind said on Friday that the chamber might also soon feel pressure from Republicans outside of Washington.

“There’s a lot of state transportation departments that are run by Republicans,” he said. “My guess is they are going to hear from them.”

Wytkind and other union leaders have vocally opposed the original version of the transportation bill in the House (H.R. 7) and encouraged the chamber to move closer to the measure that was ultimately approved by the Senate.

“It's an outrage that the House is considering waiting on taking up the Senate's transportation bill,” the TTD said last week on its Twitter page.

Boehner’s office had floated the possibility of taking up an 18-month version of the highway bill that eliminated cuts to public transit that were opposed by Democrats and several northeast Republican, but that measure was rejected by the GOP conference in the House, as well.

A GOP aide told The Hill last week the goal was still for the House to pass legislation of its own, though the aide would not speak of the timing or contents of any potential House bill. 

But Schank said the fact that GOP leaders have not yet made their plans clear shows those plans do not include passing the Senate version of the transportation bill before March 31.

"This delay signals that they will sign an extension through the election,” Schank said in an e-mail. “The House is not serious about passing the bill."


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