Wyden flexes muscles in highway fight

Greg Nash

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is at the center of an emerging deal that would keep federal road repairs from coming to a halt.

Wyden surprised outside groups and some of his Democratic colleagues last week by reaching a deal last week with Republicans to provide almost $11 billion in funding for the Highway Trust Fund — enough to keep it operating until May of next year. 

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In doing so, Wyden, whose desire to work with Republicans on policy priorities has at times frustrated lawmakers in his own party, dropped a Democratic demand that lawmakers extend transportation spending until the end of the year to create a final showdown after the midterm elections.

Wyden’s decision to acquiesce quickly stepped on the toes of some of his colleagues.

“The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, but expect a different outcome,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said at last week’s Finance hearing that advanced the temporary funding legislation. 

Senate aides and outside groups say there was widespread frustration with how Wyden rolled out the stopgap measure on Thursday, roughly an hour before the Finance Committee resumed a markup of highway legislation. 

But the White House’s decision late Monday to back a similar plan from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) could give Wyden less leverage in the final negotiations, particularly when it comes to the budget offsets. 

Still, Wyden appears to be winning the battle over how long the stopgap funding should last.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, was among those at Thursday’s markup pushing to extend funding for highways until the lame-duck session after the election. 

Carper and other Democrats argued the lame duck would be the best shot for winning an increase in the federal gas tax, given how far away the vote would be from the next election.

The gas tax, which is currently priced at 18.4 cents per gallon, has been used to pay for transportation projects since the creation of Highway Trust Fund in the 1950s. 

The tax hasn’t gotten a boost since 1993, however, and has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses as cars have grown more fuel-efficient.

The Transportation Department has said the trust fund will run out of money in August, a full month before the current transportation funding legislation had been scheduled to expire. 

That has left both chambers of Congress scrambling to find a deal before the August recess.

A GOP aide on Monday questioned what Wyden’s critics on and off Capitol Hill expected him to accomplish, given the tight time frame before funding runs out and the need to find a deal that could also make it through the House.

Still, the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), has signaled unease with Wyden’s decision to give up on the December deadline. 

Boxer said after the vote that she was glad the Finance Committee was moving forward with a patch to prevent a transportation funding bankruptcy, but she promised to keep pushing action on a long-term bill this year. 

“We still have an opportunity to pass a long-term bill this year, and I will pursue a December deadline so this Congress is forced to deal with solving the transportation crisis that we face in the Highway Trust Fund,” Boxer said in a statement after the Thursday vote. 

For his part, Wyden took pains to cast his attempt to negotiate a bipartisan deal as a “first step” in a process that will eventually lead to a long-term spending plan for infrastructure. 

“We all know what’s needed next is a long-term bill that rebuilds our broken infrastructure, which reportedly needs $3.6 trillion dollars in repairs,” Wyden said after last Thursday’s vote.

Transportation advocates shared Carper’s dim view of Wyden’s effort to work with Republicans, despite GOP accusations that Democrats were trying to sneak a gas tax increase past voters in a lame-duck session. 

“He made a decision that was predicated on trying to get a deal in a pretty tough environment where deals are pretty elusive,” Ed Wytkind, the president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, said about Wyden’s efforts on Monday.  

Wytkind said he was opposed to any transportation extension that would prevent a debate about a long-term funding bill this year. 

He compared efforts to extend transportation funding beyond the end of the year to a decision by the Obama administration to shelve a long-term infrastructure bill in 2009 during the pursuit of the economic stimulus package and the healthcare law. 

“Anything beyond the end of the year takes us back to 2008,” Wytkind said. “Eighteen months became the entire first term of the Obama administration. As you can see, it’s threatening to become the entire second term, too.” 

Lawmakers such as Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) have also promised to offer amendments to return the House bill to the December 2014 expiration date, but those efforts are likely to fail.

Wytkind said that despite his opposition to Wyden’s effort, it was unlikely lawmakers would let the Highway Trust Fund go broke in the next three weeks. 

“I think both parties are sufficiently nervous about being tagged with blame,” he said, adding that lawmakers “know how bad a story that would be.”

Bernie Becker contributed.

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