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Movement but Not Much Progress on Highway Bill

March 01, 2012

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As the Senate lumbers through debate on its highway bill, and the House considers changes to its approach, the outcome may be a short-term surface transportation program that preserves funding near current levels.


That is, if Congress can close the deal at all. The chambers have less than a month to finish work on their own bills and reconcile their differences - which are likely to be considerable - to produce a final measure that President Obama can sign.

The alternative will be to extend the program as is, for the ninth time. In one scenario, the extension could be short, to give legislators time to complete work on a bill that's nearly finished. But if agreement on a final bill cannot be found, another scenario has the extension pushing the issue to the back of the table until after the presidential election.

The Senate is perhaps further along with its two-year, $109 billion measure but still must come to terms on a host of amendments, many of which are not germane.

The Senate's work on the highway bill this week centered on debate over an amendment offered by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to give employers who have moral objections to birth control an exemption from insurance requirements in the health care law. The measure failed in a close vote largely along party lines.

The Senate is scheduled to address the funding portion of its bill next week. Details are not settled but in general the Senate proposes to pay for its bill with a mixed package of funding transfers and revenue offsets.

The House, facing opposition not only from the Democratic minority and President Obama but from some of its Republican members as well, was considering a scaled-back version of its original five-year, $260 billion proposal.

News accounts reported that a term more in line with the Senate bill, perhaps 18 months, was under consideration, but on Thursday morning House Speaker John Boehner was reported saying that would only be a fallback measure and the focus still is on a five-year bill.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and primary author of the House bill, said Tuesday that he couldn't say exactly what the House is going to do.

"I told (House Speaker John) Boehner that I want as long a term as possible in the bill," Mica told a gathering of state highway officials.

The House also is considering changes to a controversial provision that would change the way transit is funded.

Federal support for transit now comes from the Mass Transit Account in the Highway Trust Fund, funded by a portion of the federal fuel tax. The House had proposed to pay for transit by creating a new Alternative Transportation Account funded by a one-time transfer of $40 billion over five years from general revenues.

This approach ran into stiff opposition from Democrats and some urban Republicans.

"By breaking the link between highways and transit and funding from the Trust Fund, this legislation represents the balkanization of surface transportation programs and leaves public transportation without a dedicated revenue source," said Democratic members of the House T&I Committee in their commentary on the bill. "Transit programs will have to compete with every other discretionary priority funded by the General Fund of the Treasury."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, also speaking to the state highway officials, seconded that concern.

"To hollow out the transit program makes absolutely no sense," he said.

Rep. Mica said that he is befuddled by such concerns. Transit wants to stay in the trust fund even though it does not contribute to the fund and the fund is shrinking as vehicles switch to alternative fuels, he told the highway officials.

"Transit has shafted themselves," he said. "It is regrettable that they have taken the stand they have taken."

Mica also warned that the pressure to pay for the highway program with available funds is not going go away.

"This Congress is going to have a means of paying for any expenditures," he said. "Anyone who thinks it's going to get better after this next election, you're smoking funny weed because it's not going to happen."

The administration, for its part, supports the Senate's two-year approach.

"We like the Senate bill," LaHood said, noting the bipartisan cooperation of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., in the drafting of the bill.

"We should take politics out of transportation. This idea that because we don't have earmarks we can't pass a bill is baloney." The bill will create "pots of money" that states can compete for, he said, referencing DOT's grant program, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER).

"Hopefully the Senate bill will pass," LaHood said. "We don't know what the House is going to do."

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