Optimism sparks up as transportation bill talks get a fresh start

A new sense of optimism was in the air at transportation negotiations Wednesday as the leaders of House-to-Senate talks resumed their work. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the Tuesday intervention by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had sparked new life in the talks. 

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Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairmen of the Senate and House panels negotiating the deal, met again Wednesday, with Boxer saying the two would talk for as long as it took to get a deal. 

“Starting today we are meeting for hours and we will let you know when we have an agreement,” Boxer told reporters at the Capitol.

“The meeting yesterday was huge progress, both leaders saying they want a bill by the end of the week,” she said. “It was huge progress and we have hours on the schedule with the principals, so it’s all progress.”

Mica offered a similar appraisal, telling The Hill, “We’re working hard.”

Lawmakers added that the leaders’ instruction that negotiators redouble their efforts was seen as genuine and boosted hopes of a deal before the July 4 recess, which begins a week from Friday. 

Funding for federal transportation projects will expire on June 30 without a deal. The highway bill funds road and transit projects and authorizes the federal government to collect the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax used to pay for the projects.

Without a deal on a long-term bill, lawmakers could be forced to approve the 10th short-term extension of existing funding, something Republicans have raised as a possibility. But Boxer has warned the highway trust fund backed by the gas tax could go bankrupt without a new funding mechanism for projects. 

The Senate has passed a two-year, $109-billion transportation bill, while the House has been unable to approve long-term legislation. The House has passed a short-term bill that would extend existing funding through Sept. 30, but this week’s work signals GOP leaders would prefer a longer agreement. 

Democrats in the Senate made an offer to House Republicans on Tuesday about a possible compromise, but neither side has revealed its details so far. 

The biggest holdup has been the House’s demand of a mandate forcing the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. 

Lawmakers did not comment Wednesday on whether this provision was included in the Senate’s latest offer on the transportation bill, but Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) said the Democratic proposal was a step in the right direction.

“There was some movement, which tells me that they want to try to get it done,” he said. “But the hard stuff matters, the stuff that would require us to get to 218. [That’s] what they’re going to be working on.”

GOP leaders in the House labored to bring conservative members of their caucus on board with a five-year, $260-billion transportation bill that had been suggested earlier this year by Boehner because it spent more per year than the amount that is brought in by the federal gas tax. 

But the inclusion of the Keystone mandate appears to have united Republicans against opposition to the provision from Democrats in the Senate. Earlier this month, the House defeated a motion by Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) to instruct highway conferees from the House to limit the spending in the highway bill to the roughly $36 billion per year brought in by the gas tax, with 145 Republicans voting against the proposal. 

Other lawmakers on the two transportation committees expressed optimism Wednesday.

“Apparently we’re finally getting down to the point of serious negotiations,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who had accused House Republicans of “hating America” in earlier debates about the transportation bill.

“Until this week, it was all ‘he said, she said’ except for some minor titles on the bill,” DeFazio said. “I’m more cautiously optimistic than I had been in a long time.”

“They both said that they’re committed to getting it done,” said Ribble.

 “The two chairmen are meeting, working on the hard things,” he said. “We’ll just see where it goes.”

Ben Geman and Russell Berman contributed to this report.