Highway spending bill running out of gas, as House, Senate negotiations stall

Advocates for a new federal transportation bill think even bumping negotiations up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) may not be enough to save the measure from this year’s legislative scrapheap.

Traditionally in bicameral negotiations, issues that cannot be resolved by conferees are bumped up to the leaders of the respective chambers.

ADVERTISEMENT
But the pointed shots taken recently by the leaders of the conference committee -- that for a month has been attempting to negotiate an agreement between the House and Senate on the bill -- has caused some transportation advocates to ponder whether a deal is any longer possible, even if Reid and Boehner assume the helm of the talks.

“I think the bill’s dead,” a transportation industry source said to The Hill on Friday.  “I don’t think they can fix what they have in front of them. Kicking it up to the leadership probably gives it a chance…but every time they get to the five-yard line, they move the goal posts back.”

Lawmakers have until June 30 to reach a deal on transportation spending before the current funding mechanism for road and transit projects runs out.

The leaders of the 47-member conference committee from their respective chambers, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) sharply criticized each other last week in tones uncharacteristic of the first month of negotiations among the highway conference committee.   

Boxer said that the House lacked “urgency” and “leadership” in the highway negotiations. Mica countered that the Senate “appears unwilling to compromise at all” on House provisions, like mandating the approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. 

The escalation of the public rhetoric between the chambers’ leading negotiators caused Associated General Contractors of America spokesman Brian Turmail to worry Friday that the tradition of bumping intractable issues up to leadership may not work in the contentious highway negotiations.   

“If it required four people to get in a room to get a deal, we would’ve already had a deal,” he said. “Our sense is the leadership has obviously been involved, but I don’t know if it’s as simple as ‘if leadership gets [more] involved, you’ll automatically get a break.’”

A House GOP aide told The Hill that all of the issues involved in the transportation negotiations that fall under the lower chamber’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s jurisdiction were still being handled by members of the panel who are on the conference committee.

The aide said provisions dealing with the appropriation of revenue from fines generated by the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill were the only thing in the highway negotiations that is strictly at the leadership level thus far.

Boxer gave a similar report during a photo op with construction equipment last week, saying the conference committee was still negotiating issues dealing with the Senate Environment and Public Works, Commerce and Finance committees’ respective jurisdictions.

“The state of play is that we are negotiating in good faith,” Boxer said, though she added that her message to the House was “get your act together to get this done.”

If Congress does not reach an agreement by June 30, the federal funding for road and transit projects – and government’s ability to collect the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax that supports it – will run out.  The House has passed an additional extension that would carry transportation funding through Sept. 30, but that measure would have to also be approved by the Senate to become law.

The AGCA and other transportation groups dubbed the Transportation Construction Coalition (TCC) ran ads last week urging the conference to help the panel come to a consensus.

Two of the members, freshmen Reps. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), said the advertisements helped them dig further into their positions.

"I've yet to have a person hang up and not say stick to your guns," Lankford said in a conference call with reporters. "I'm quite pleased that they're running these ads against us because they've emboldened our base." 

But Turmail said Friday that the ads were working as the transportation coalition intended.

“They were intended to raise awareness that there’s a deadline coming up and get constituents involved,” he said.

Lankford and Southerland said they would continue to insist on provisions that were included in the original five-year, $260 billion transportation bill that was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, despite criticism from Democrats on the panel about the fact that the legislation was never approved by the full lower-chamber.

Turmail said the transportation coalition did not have a preference between the chamber’s proposals, but said the group’s members were ready for Congress to make a compromise.

“We’ve got a lot of members who are frustrated that the deal is not done,” he said. “If you’re a contractor, the most important thing is for your state to have certainty in its transportation funding.”

Acknowledging that may not come in the next two weeks however, Turmail added: “if it were that easy, we would already be talking about getting a six-year bill when this expires.”