Senators say highway bill could reach Obama by Thanksgiving

A pair of senators who have pushed for a multiyear highway bill say such a proposal could reach President Obama's desk by Thanksgiving. 

The Senate passed a bill that includes three years of guaranteed highway funding in July, and the House has now begun working on a six-year, $325 billion infrastructure package of its own that the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved Thursday.

Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerDem senators back Interior coal leasing review Trump and Sanders whip up debate buzz Boxer: Sanders appeals to young voters with grandpa effect MORE (D-Calif.) say it is possible for lawmakers to get a long-term highway bill to Obama by the end of November, now that the House highway bill has cleared its first committee test. 

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"Both the Senate and the House bills have many similarities that will allow for a very short conference period," Inhofe said in a statement after the panel's vote.  

"With this milestone, Congress should be able to send a bill to the president’s desk by Thanksgiving," he continued. "This will allow for our nation to avoid the Highway Trust Fund hitting a dangerously low level, which DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx warned would significantly affect the 2016 construction season.”

Boxer agreed. "We are moving forward bit by bit toward our goal, a long-term authorization of the surface transportation bill," she said. "We have no time to waste and I urge an immediate conference." 

Lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee have touted their highway bill vote as major breakthrough in an infrastructure funding logjam that has lasted for a decade. They have said that they will have to wait for the Ways and Means Committee to identify ways to offset the costs of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform (STRR) Act before it can move forward to the floor of the lower chamber, however.

"The committee’s overwhelming approval of the STRR Act today is a positive step forward for our Nation’s transportation system and our economy,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa) said in a statement after Thursday's vote.  “I look forward to House action on the bill and going to conference with the Senate as soon as possible.”

The timing of the pay-fors emerging from the Ways and Means Committee has been complicated by Rep. Paul Ryan's bid for speaker of the House. Ryan is the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, but he has been drafted into the speaker's race. 

Republicans in the House have been facing pressure to pass a multiyear highway bill since they rejected an infrastructure funding measure approved by Senate this summer. They balked at that bill, known as the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act because it contained six years' worth of transportation commitments but only three years' worth of funding. 

By contrast, the highway bill that was approved by the House Transportation Committee on Thursday would require lawmakers to pass new legislation to "unlock" additional funding after the initial three years, instead of guaranteeing it in advance.

Congress has been struggling for years to come up with a way to pay for a long-term highway bill. The traditional source for transportation funding is revenue collected by the federal gas tax, which is currently set at 18.4 cents per gallon. The federal government spends about $50 billion per year on roads, but the gas tax take only brings in $34 billion annually. 

Both chambers' highway bills would maintain the federal government's current spending level of about $50 billion per year for transportation projects, adjusted for inflation. To reach that level of spending, Congress will have to come up with approximately $16 billion per year to supplement revenue from the gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993. 

To close the gap long enough to pay for three years' worth of road funding, the Senate approved a package of approximately $47 billion of offsets.

The Senate package relies largely on revenue from reducing interest rates paid by the Federal Reserve to large banks, selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and directing fees from the Transportation Security Administration and customs processing. House leaders balked at the proposals, opting instead for a three-month extension with $8 billion of offsets that is now set to expire on Oct. 29. 

Boxer and Inhofe have argued that their version of the highway bill was the product of intense bipartisan negotiations, pointing to its broad support when it came up on the floor of the upper chamber in July. 

"On July 30th, the Senate passed the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act (DRIVE Act), a six-year authorization of our surface transportation programs with three years of funding, by a vote of 65 to 34," Boxer, who is the top ranking Democrat on the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote in an Oct. 16 letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).  

Boxer added that the transportation funding problem "requires all of us to join hands across the aisle to ensure we pass a multi-year surface transportation bill and do it in a way that is funded." 

GOP leaders in the House, meanwhile, pointed to the Thursday markup of their version of the highway bill as evidence of the lower chamber's commitment to passing a long-term infrastructure bill, even as they admitted another temporary extension is likely before lawmakers can work out a bicameral agreement on a longer-term highway bill. 

"A safe, efficient network of roads, bridges, and public transit means that we spend less time in traffic, transportation costs for goods and services remain lower, and more jobs are created throughout the economy," Shuster said during a hearing on Thursday.   

"That’s what this bill does in a way that I believe ensures a strong and appropriate federal role in surface transportation, enables our country to remain competitive and improves Americans’ quality of life," he continued.

The Department of Transportation has warned that it will have to stop making payments to states and local governments for infrastructure projects in November if Congress does not reach an agreement.