Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, today will mark up a proposal to extend the program until the end of the year at current funding levels.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said he will accept one more extension, although he has not yet determined where he stands on the duration and funding level.
President Obama has called on Congress to pass a clean extension.
"Allowing this bill to expire would be a disaster for our infrastructure and our economy," Obama said in remarks last week. "Right away, over 4,000 workers would be furloughed without pay. If it's delayed for just 10 days, we will lose nearly $1 billion in highway funding that we can never get back. And if we wait even longer, almost 1 million workers could be in danger of losing their jobs over the next year."
The intent behind the four-month extension offered by Sen. Boxer is to give Congress time to finish work on a full highway reauthorization bill.
With only nine congressional working days left in September, there is no way the House and Senate can complete work on their separate versions of the bill and reconcile their differences.
They are miles apart. Sen. Boxer has been discussing a two-year reauthorization funded at current levels, while Rep. Mica has been pushing a six-year bill that severely cuts highway spending.
Boxer went with the two-year approach in hopes of preserving the current funding at $54.5 billion a year. This depends, however, on the Senate Finance Committee coming up with $12 billion over and above what will be generated by the Highway Trust Fund.
Mica's approach has been to go with a six-year program but limit funding to only what is available from the Highway Trust Fund, in effect a 36% percent cut in highway funding.
Mica has said that when it comes to funding his hands are tied, citing a House rule instituted by the Republican leadership that limits highway money to what is available from the trust fund. His argument is that since a fuel tax increase is off the table - neither the House nor the White House supports an increase - the program must survive on the revenues that are coming in. To do otherwise would run the trust fund into the red, he said.
A four-month extension might create the opportunity for different political calculations.
Obama Jobs Package
One factor will be President Obama's speech tonight, in which he is expected to call for a $300 billion jobs and growth package that will include renewed investment in roads, bridges and other highway projects.
According to news reports, Obama will ask Congress to offset the cost of his proposal by raising tax revenue in later years. Given his longstanding opposition to raising the fuel tax while so many are out of work the country still is recovering from the recession, that leaves the possibility that he'll seek higher revenue by calling for reforms in the tax system.
Another factor may be the recommendations of the bipartisan Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, the so-called "super committee" that must identify $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction measures by November 23. These may include tax reforms as well as cuts in domestic and defense spending, as well as programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
If the 12-member committee can't find at least $1.2 trillion in savings, or if Congress does not adopt its recommendations by the end of the year, the agreement calls for automatic $1.2 trillion in cuts split evenly between domestic and defense over the next decade.
There is considerable pressure on Congress and on the administration from the transportation and business community, as well as the states, for a six-year bill with adequate funding. Many studies have shown that the nation's transportation infrastructure needs significant reinvestment, and transportation planners insist they need a multi-year program for stability in funding and planning.
American Trucking Associations, for instance, applauded Obama's call for quick passage of another extension but added that an extension is no substitute for a long-term bill.
"Congress must also act quickly to craft a well-funded multi-year transportation bill that focuses federal resources on projects that are in the national interest and reform federal rules to improve the safety and efficiency of the highway system," said Mary Phillips, ATA senior vice president for legislative affairs, in a statement.