by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
The Senate is pressing ahead on Tuesday with its effort to pass a long-term extension of federal highway bill that is set to expire on Friday, despite staunch objections from the House.
Lawmakers in the House are planning to vote Wednesday on a temporary three-month transportation extension and then leave town in an effort to force the Senate to accept its version of the must-pass highway bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said his chamber will continue to try to drive its long-term highway bill over the finish line this week.
“The Senate continues to move closer and closer to passage of bipartisan, multi-year highway bill,” he said at the start of Tuesday’s Senate session.
“Success was never assured at the beginning of this process, it wasn’t assured even yesterday,” McConnell continued. “We’re not done yet, but the important thing is that the Senate is now on the verge of passing a multi-year highway bill.”
Lawmakers are facing a Friday deadline for renewing federal road funding. The House and Senate are gridlocked on the length of a possible extension, imperiling infrastructure spending at the height of the busy summer construction season.
Lawmakers in the House balked at the Senate’s multiyear proposal, and the lower chamber is planning to vote on a bill that would extend transportation funding until Oct. 29 and leave town to jam the Senate into dropping its longer proposal.
McConnell did not address the House’s plans on Tuesday, but he made the case for his chamber’s longer proposal.
“The legislation we advanced again last night is fiscally responsible, it won’t raise taxes by a penny and it will give state and local governments the kind of stability they need to plan longer-term projects for American roads and bridges,” he said.
“The bottom line is this,” McConnell continued. “If Republicans and Democrats resolve to keep working hard for the American people, we’ll get this done.”
Other Republican leaders predicted that the House would have no choice but to accept the Senate’s multiyear highway bill to prevent an interruption in the nation’s transportation funding if the upper chamber can pass it before the chamber goes home this week.
“My feeling is this….one of the reasons that I think statements have been made over there is that they never believed we’re going to be able to get passed a six-year highway reauthorization bill over here,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Inhofe said he hoped the Senate would be able to speed up the procedural clock to pass the long-term highway bill before Wednesday to “allow the House to look at it and perhaps come up with a better judgment than they’ve expressed thus far.”
“There is time to do this, and I’m personally going to make every effort,” he said.
Democrats in the Senate also sharply criticized Republican leaders in the House for planning to leave town for the traditional August early to avoid taking up the Senate’s multi-year highway bill.
“Is it even August?” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked. “Isn’t it July 28th today?”
The squabbling between the chambers has threatened to imperil the nation’s infrastructure spending.
The House moved first to pass an $8 billion patch earlier this month that would have extended transportation funding until Dec. 18 in an effort to preempt Senate efforts to add a renewal of the controversial Ex-Im Bank to the must-pass highway bill.
Republican leaders in the House have balked at the proposal to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank in the highway bill, and they have said they will not take up the Senate’s multi-year infrastructure bill even if it is passed this week.
“I want a long-term highway bill that is fully paid for,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday. “That has been the goal all year and that continues to be the goal.”
Boehner and other critics in both chambers have complained that the Senate measure only includes three years worth of guaranteed funding, although it authorizes six years of spending. The measure relies on a controversial package of offsets to supplement sagging federal gas tax revenues long enough to pay for only half of the measure’s authorized expenditures.
The 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax has been the main source of federal transportation funding since the 1930s. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and it has lagged behind construction expenses as cars have become more fuel efficient.
The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on roads and transit, but the gas tax only brings in $34 billion annually at its current rate.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that it would take about $100 billion, in addition to the gas tax revenue, to fully pay for a six-year highway bill. The Senate measure only includes about $47 billion in offsets, meaning lawmakers would have to revisit the infrastructure issue in three years.