by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
The stakes are high for both Democrats and Republicans as negotiations in Congress about a new transportation spending bill are entering their final week.
For Republicans, failing to reach an agreement gives President Obama another weapon to bludgeon the “Do-Nothing” Congress he plans to run against in his bid for re-election. Passing a compromise bill would show they are not obstinate, as Democrats have argued since the GOP took control of the House in 2010.
For Democrats, the transportation bill represents perhaps the last shot at passing meaningful jobs legislation before November’s election. Reaching an agreement gives them a potential answer to the question “Where are the jobs?” which Republicans have mockingly repeated as the national unemployment rate has remained stubbornly above 8 percent.
Those competing political realities are perhaps why both sides went back to the negotiating table last week after the talks were widely thought to be dead, a Republican strategist told The Hill on Friday.
“It’s going to hurt incumbents on both sides of the aisle because of the struggling economy and the jobs that could have been created in these districts,” the strategist said of the possibility of a stalemate. “This needs to get done.”
Lawmakers seemed to recognize that last week, going back to the negotiating table with a flurry of in-person meetings after weeks of press conferences, but little actual movement.
Leaders in both political parties pronounced the talks were moving in the right direction heading into the final week of negotiations.
“I don’t think we’ll need an extension. I hope not,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) 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.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) largely agreed, though he caused a firestorm in the transportation world when he suggested lawmakers consider passing a six-month extension if they are unable to reach a deal by the end of next week.
“I met with the Republican conferees [Thursday] on the highway bill. They’ve been heavily engaged. And clearly there’s some movement that’s been under way since the meeting I had with Sen. Reid and Sen. Boxer,” Boehner said in a press conference of his own.
For all the optimism that surrounding the highway talks however, lawmakers still have to come to a bicameral agreement by June 30. Outstanding issues like the House’s push to include a mandate forcing the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline still remain, and lawmakers have not publicly announced a funding amount for a potential compromise bill.
The Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill earlier this year, but because the negotiations with the House have dragged on, the measure would only provide funding for road and transit projects for about 18 months now. The House passed a pair of temporary extension of the current transportation bill – which was supposed to expire in 2009 – that would carry highway funding through Sept. 30.
The Senate only agreed to one of the House’s extensions, setting up Saturday deadline the conference committee to meld the two chamber’s vastly different approaches.
If they don’t, Congress will have to pass a tenth extension of the transportation bill that expired in 2009.
Transportation advocates and Democrats have argued that an extension would bankrupt the highway trust fund, which is the traditional funding source for road and transit projects.
With that in mind, members of the transportation industry sought to ratchet up pressure on Congress to make a deal as the talks between the House and Senate enter their final week.
“The clock is ticking on our economy,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind said in an email to supporters.
“There are only…days left before current funding for transit and highways expires and time is running out for Congress to pass a transportation jobs bill as our economy teeters,” he continued. “Letting our transportation system fall apart is what irresponsible politicians do.”
Members of the conference committee have said that they are aware that time is not on their side.
“Obviously we’re running out of time. Time is now a factor that has not been a part of the process over the last month and a half,” Republican conferee Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) said last week in a “Conservation with Conservatives” organized by the Heritage Foundation.
“I think that, hopefully, everyone on both sides of the aisle will…roll our sleeves up,” Southerland continued. “We desperately need certainty in America….Extensions do not provide this certainty that I think individual owners and companies need.”
Wytkind said he hopes Southerland and other Republicans on the 47-member conference committee keep that fact in mind in the homestretch of negotiations on the highway bill this week.
“A simple extension of the program, an idea being floated as an alternative to a real jobs bill, should be rejected because it won’t fix the enormous funding shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund that will be emptied in a matter of months,” he said. “The nation can’t wait any longer for this legislation.”