Congress scrambles to reach highway deal

Lawmakers face a host of obstacles when it comes to filling the Highway Trust Fund, even though they have just days left to act.
Top Republicans like Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (Utah) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) have said that they’re working on a patch that would finance highway projects through the end of the year.
But Democrats on Capitol Hill are increasingly predicting that Congress will only be able to muster a two-month extension of highway policy, a proposition that would force lawmakers to deal with the issue again in July.
{mosads}A seven-month extension would require roughly $11 billion worth of offsets. But Democratic aides in both chambers said Thursday that they doubted Republicans could find a package that would win enough Democrats to make it through Congress.
“Not one that can pass, no,” said one Democratic leadership aide.
The Highway Trust Fund has faced chronic shortfalls in recent years because its primary funding mechanism, the federal gas tax, only covers around $34 billion of the $50 billion the government spends on roads in a year.
Lawmakers have until the end of May to act on highway policy, and are expected to reach some deal to keep a bipartisan priority up and running. But Congress is scheduled to be out of Washington during the last week of this month, giving lawmakers few legislative days to come up with a solution.
On top of that, the Senate especially has a full schedule as Congress tries to come up with new highway funding. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is pushing to finish off a broad trade measure next week, and lawmakers also face a deadline for surveillance programs.
The Transportation Department has said that highway funding could go into at least July, as long as highway policy is extended by the end of the month. That would allow lawmakers to pass a two-month extension before the end of the month without having to find new offsets, likely making it the easiest solution for lawmakers.
But with Republicans in charge on both sides of the Capitol, there’s still plenty of time for lawmakers to strike a deal on a seven-month highway deal, even though the GOP will need Democratic help in the Senate.
“It’ll be voted on,” Hatch told reporters on Thursday. “I’ll tell you that.”
Senior Republicans are essentially united in seeking a patch until the end of December as well.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, now says he backs a seven-month extension, after previously seeking the two-month solution that Democrats now believe most likely. Ryan and Hatch have long brushed aside the idea of a two-month deal.
Hatch and Ryan have said the longer extension would give Congress more time to negotiate a five- to six-year highway deal, after lawmakers have for years limped along with short-term patches. Republicans in both chambers said they expect the House to act first on highway funding, voting sometime next week.
Hatch said that Senate and House Republicans were working together to find the $11 billion needed to fund highway projects for the rest of 2015. But he acknowledged Thursday that “we haven’t finally decided on what that package is going to be.”
Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking member on Ways and Means, said that Democrats hadn’t seen a final GOP plan for the seven-month patch.
But Hatch has said that spending cuts should be considered as one way to finance highway projects through the end of the year. A Democratic aide said Republicans had floated entitlement cuts as potential offsets — something the aide said would be difficult for Democrats to accept, given that the Highway Trust Fund has historically been filled by revenues.
Two Democrats, Sens. Tom Carper (Del.) and Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), introduced a bill on Thursday that would extend highway policy for two months, essentially putting funding and the authorization of the programs on the same timeline.
In a statement, Carper said that a seven-month patch would only allow Congress to put highway funding to the side once more, and not face down the need for a long-term deal. Inhofe and Boxer have said they plan to consider a long-term bill on highway policy next month, even as Congress struggles to come up with funding streams for roads.
Democrats have pushed Republicans to come up with a long-term plan for highway funding. But Democrats themselves haven’t thrown out many ideas for a six-year highway deal, underscoring the problems that Congress will face in trying to find the tens of billions of dollars in funding they’ll need.
In any event, there’s no chance for a multiyear deal to develop in the next week. Democrats like Levin have backed away in recent days from supporting a seven-month extension. Still, Levin didn’t sound too enthusiastic about a two-month deal either on Thursday, suggesting Congress might be headed toward another solution that many lawmakers will find wanting.
“The problem with a two-month extension is it takes the heat off it,” he said. 

Tags Barbara Boxer James Inhofe Mitch McConnell Orrin Hatch Paul Ryan Tom Carper
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