GOP chairman: Highway bill will move separately from budget deal

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Monday that lawmakers will try to move a multiyear highway bill independently of a rumored budget deal that is being negotiated by the White House and GOP leaders in Congress. 

"I understand there is a lot of moving discussion on larger deals on the debt ceiling and budget caps; however, there is agreement that the surface transportation bill can and will move on its own timeline," he said in a speech on the floor of the Senate on Monday afternoon.

Federal transportation funding is set to expire on Thursday, and Congress is scrambling to pass a temporary extension to prevent highway spending shutdown and buy more time for negotiations on multiyear infrastructure bill between the House and Senate. 

Sources have said Monday that White House officials and congressional leaders are nearing a deal to raise the debt limit and set the federal budget for the next two years. The budget talks have also been linked to a long-term highway funding bill and a measure to renew the Export-Import Bank, but a congressional aide said those measures were not a part of the final deal.

Inhofe predicted that congressional negotiations on a possible multiyear highway bill would be "very short" after Congress approves the latest temporary patch. 

"It's my understanding that the House intends to move Chairman Shuster's six-year reauthorization bill through the full House over the next two weeks," he said. 

"Unlike in years past, I expect a very short conference period," he continued. "When I say a very short conference period, it's because there's very little difference between the House bill and the Senate bill. I've talked to the likely conferees and they are in accord with the idea that we can do this in a matter of hours and not days." 

Shuster has introduced a measure (H.R. 3819) that would move the transportation funding deadline to Nov. 20.  

Shuster said Monday afternoon that the temporary patch is just a stopgap to give Congress additional time to finish working on a multiyear highway bill. 

“Last week, the Transportation Committee unanimously approved the bipartisan, multi-year Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015. We look forward to voting on that bill in the House soon and then going to conference with the Senate on their highway bill," Shuster said in a statement. 

"I am confident that we can resolve the differences between the House and Senate measures and produce a final product that’s good for our Nation’s infrastructure," he continued. "This extension will allow the highway bill process to continue moving forward without shutting down transportation programs and projects across the country." 

Inhofe said Monday afternoon that he agrees with Shuster's analysis of the likelihood of a long-term transportation bill coming after Congress approves a temporary patch this week. 

"Because we still face this important process, Congress will need one more extension to get us to the finish line," Inhofe said. "The finish line should be the 20th of November. And it can be done." 

Alexander Bolton contributed to this report.