by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday that he did not think Congress would have to pass a temporary extension of surface transportation funding.
Lawmakers have been negotiating for a month to try to avoid a tenth extension of the transportation funding bill that expired in 2009, and Reid said Thursday that he thought a bicameral agreement might be in reach.
“I don’t think we’ll need an extension. I hope not,” Reid said during a news conference at the Capitol. “I can’t guarantee anyone here we’re going to get a highway bill, but we’re certainly in a lot better shape than we were 24 hours ago.”
Reid said he had spoken with the leading Senate Democrat and Republican on the 47-member committee that has been conferencing on the highway bill, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), and he said that he was encouraged by their updates.
“There’s significant progress being made,” he said. “We hope that we can get this over the finish line. It would be wonderful for the country, it really, really would be. And we’re trying.”
Reid’s counterpart in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), declined to comment when asked by The Hill for an update on the transportation negotiations.
However, Boxer and the leading House Republican on the conference committee, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), issued a rare joint public statement proclaiming progress had been made in the transportation talks Thursday.
“The conferees have moved forward toward a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on a highway reauthorization bill,” Boxer and Mica said in their first joint statement of the month-long negotiations.
“Both House and Senate conferees will continue to work with a goal of completing a package by next week,” the two said in their statement.
The California Democrat and Florida Republican have been leading a conference committee that has labored to find an agreement between the House and Senate on a bill to provide transportation funding for at least the next 18 months.
The Senate has approved a $109 billion bill that would fund road and transit projects through September of 2013, while the House has passed a pair of extensions of the current funding mechanism for transportation that would carry the funding through Sept. 30.
Democrats in the House have argued that the lower chamber should accept the Senate’s the transportation measure since it was unable to pass a long-term version of the bill itself. But a key House Republican member of the conference committee, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), said during a debate about a motion to instruct the House’s conferrees to acquiesce to the Senate offered by Democrats that the highway negotiations were “moving in a direction to adopt much” of the GOP’s priorities.
“At a time when we’re getting so close…this is not a time for us to be out here talking about it,” Shuster said about the issues that had previously led to the conference committee’s stalemate during a debate on a motion to instruct from Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)
“Now is the time for us to hunker down,” Shuster said of the bicameral conference negotiations that have picked up steam this week.
If lawmakers do not reach an agreement on at least an extension by June 30, the federal government’s ability to spend money on transportation projects will run out. The expiration would also end the government’s authorization to collect the 18.4-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline that is traditionally used to fund transportation projects.