Reid: Negotiators need highway bill deal by Wednesday to beat funding deadline

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned Tuesday that a deal between the House and Senate on transportation funding needed to be finalized Wednesday to be approved by Congress in time to beat a June 30 deadline. 

Speaking to reporters at the Capitol after a Democratic Caucus luncheon, Reid said the conference committee of lawmakers that have been negotiating the highway bill for nearly two months was close to an agreement. 

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"We have to have an agreement by tomorrow," Reid said Tuesday. "Otherwise, we can't get the bill done." 

Reid said in order for a possible transportation agreement between the House and Senate to be approved by both chambers and sent to President Obama before the current funding runs out this weekend, it would have to be reached tomorrow. 

He continued to express optimism that a deal was possible, saying "We're very close to having everything done, but until we get everything done, nothing is done.

"I'm convinced that when this is all over with, we could have a very, very good highway bill," Reid said. "It would include transit. It would include some things that we work with here in the Senate. But it won't include everything we did here in the Senate. I'm sure of that."

Reid suggested the highway bill could be combined with a bill to prevent an increase in student loan interest rates: "We basically have the student loan issue worked out. 

"The next question is, what do we put it on to make sure we can complete it?" he continued. "There are a number of suspects we have, but right now, we don't have that worked out yet." 

Other lawmakers in the Senate expressed openness to the possibility of the measures being combined Tuesday. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said he would be OK with the combination "assuming they can work it out.

"There's a couple of issues with the highway bill that still have to be worked out as I understand it," Kyl told The Hill.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said whether student loans gets wrapped up with the highway measure was up to leadership.

“We would have the votes for the student loan bill, one way or the other,” Harkin said. “So I don’t really care.”

Among the biggest among of the agenda items is the House proposal to include a mandate forcing the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. 

A supporter of the pipeline in the Senate, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said to The Hill on Tuesday that the possible combination of the transportation funding bill with the student loan issue did not forestall the inclusion of Keystone in the final bicameral compromise. 

"The more interest you can satisfy, the more likely you are to get a bill," Graham said when asked of the possibility the bills could be combined. 

"There's a legitimate interest in Keystone. There's a legitimate interest in student loans, and yes, we need a highway bill, so it could be a mini-package," he continued. 

If lawmakers do not agree on at least a 10th extension of the highway funding legislation that was supposed to expire in 2009 by Saturday, the federal government's ability to spend money on road and transit projects will run out. The measure also contains the government's authority to collect the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax that is traditionally used to pay for transportation projects. 

Asked about the possibility of a temporary extension by The Hill Tuesday, Reid said only that he "hoped we don't have to get to that point."

—Bernie Becker contributed.