Senate highway bill faces many obstacles

Greg Nash

A six-year highway bill crafted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was in limbo Tuesday after lawmakers rejected a motion to move forward with the measure in a 41-56 vote.

Democrats voted in unison against proceeding to the 1,030-page bill, arguing they had no time to review the complicated legislation.

Eleven Republicans also voted against the motion.

The Senate is expected to try again on Wednesday after Democrats discuss the bill in conference, and Boxer voiced optimism that the next vote will be positive.

“I hope tomorrow we’ll be able to join with our friends and vote to proceed,” said Boxer, who joined Democrats in voting against Tuesday’s motion.

It’s clear there will be a number of challenges in moving the bill forward, however.

McConnell, who voted “no” to preserve his right to bring the bill up again on Wednesday, said the Senate would likely work Saturday and possibly Sunday to make up for the time lost to the procedural setback.

“I know I haven’t threatened a Saturday session all year,” McConnell said immediately after the vote. “We need to keep at it, and that will require us to be in here this weekend.”

One obstacle is the House.

The six-year bill would pay for new highway funding for three years by using a grab bag of offsets in addition to the federal gas tax, which is not collecting enough dollars to pay for federal programs. Congress would have to come up with another package of offsets to pay for the bill’s final three years.

Without action by lawmakers, authority for federal highway projects will expire at the end of the month.

The House has passed a five-month highway funding patch. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) held back when asked at a Tuesday briefing if he would support the Senate’s six-year bill.

“I know it’s characterized as a long-term bill, but only paid for short-term,” he said.

“We’ll wait and see what the details have, but I still stand behind where the House is going. I think that’s a better long-term plan if you can have a long-term bill that is actually paid for. Much stronger.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other House GOP leaders have argued the shorter-term bill would give negotiators more time to come up with a six-year plan that would be fully paid for.

McConnell, however, wants to make sure the Senate doesn’t have to deal with federal highway funding in 2016, an election year in which a number of incumbent Senate Republicans face tough reelection races.

He also wants to score as many accomplishments as possible so that Senate Republicans can run on a positive record next year.

Another conflict with the House is the Export-Import Bank.

McConnell said that once the floor debate begins, he expects a vote on an amendment reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, which saw its charter lapse last month.

“It’s my anticipation that an Ex-Im provision will be offered on the transportation bill,” he said. 

Ex-Im’s inclusion will be opposed by many Republicans in the House and the Senate.

The new bill includes nearly $50 billion in offsets to help pay for projects over the next three years, some of which are controversial.

It would generate $9 billion by selling crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve; $16 billion by cutting the dividend rate paid by the Federal Reserve; $4 billion by indexing customs fees to inflation; and $2.3 billion by blocking Social Security payments to individuals with felony warrants, according to the bill’s architects.

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) raised reservations about the Social Security language.

“There is not enough money in Marc Rich’s Social Security to pay for one bridge, let alone generate a substantial amount of money for a highway bill,” he said, in reference to the fugitive financier who died in 2013.

“There are a lot of Social Security recipients who will be affected,” he added. “This is an area where the details and fine print really matters.”

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) objected to the dividend rate cut in voting no on Tuesday.

“They’re going to take some money out of the banking system. I’m against that,” said Shelby. “That will weaken the banking system.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) objects to using the petroleum reserve as an offset, while Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he is disappointed McConnell chose offsets spread over the next decade to fund only three years of the transportation program. He and other Republicans would prefer a sustainable funding source with reliable revenues — or savings — produced year after year.

“The Highway Trust Fund is something you fund with recurring monies coming in to pay for recurring outgoes and that certainly is not what is happening here,” he added.

Most of the Democratic opposition followed the lead of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who said his members needed time to look at the bill.

“This is a big, big bill, with a lot of different sections in it dealing with a lot of different issues,” Reid said on the floor after the vote. “We just want to be able to read and study the bill and talk about it at a private meeting.”

Boxer defended the deal but argued that Democrats need time to consider it.

She said it will put up to 800,000 construction workers back on the job and give businesses the certainty they need to build new projects.

The Senate bill reauthorizes federal aid for highways, boosts funding for bridges and establishes a funding formula for freight transport.

It also provides funding for major projects around the country, boosts transportation research and addresses rail and auto safety.

“If you read the Constitution, it says there are two things we’re supposed to be doing here: defending America, and roads and bridges. This is a major thing,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who helped negotiate the bill.

The other Republican “no” votes came from Murkowski and Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.), David Perdue (Ga.), Tim Scott (S.C.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), and Pat Toomey (Pa.).

Jordain Carney and Cristina Marcos contributed. 

Updated at 8:08 p.m.

Tags Barbara Boxer Export-Import Bank Harry Reid Highway bill Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan

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