Senate approves reauthorization bill after grueling floor debate

Source: Jason Plautz • E&E  • Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Senate voted 74-22 today to clear a two-year bill that would reauthorize U.S. transportation programs in a bipartisan vote, ending months of work and five weeks of floor action.

The pressure now shifts to the House, which has yet to produce a transportation bill and may be forced to take up the upper chamber’s measure. The Senate’s $109 billion bill simply extends current levels indexed to inflation, while also putting in place reforms to the project review process and consolidating some federal programs.

On the way to its vote, the Senate moved through two amendments on the environmental reviews for infrastructure damaged by natural disasters. It rejected an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would have required federal agencies to speed up environmental reviews for roads and bridges damaged in natural disasters or emergencies.

Paul’s amendment was dismissed after Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) raised a point of order, saying the amendment would violate the Budget Act. A motion to waive the act and allow the amendment failed, 42-54.

Environmental groups had opposed the Paul amendment because they say the waiver already exists and the proposal would only weaken the environmental review process. Boxer said the amendment was a “broad overreach” that threatened public health.

The Senate approved, 76-20, a proposal from Boxer expressing the sense of the Senate that federal agencies should speed up reviews in similar situations

Paul dismissed Boxer’s provision as “say something, do nothing.”

A number of other amendments failed to get roll-call votes. One from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would limit air tours over the Grand Canyon was adopted into a managers amendment last night. A similar proposal from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) dealing with air tours over all national parks was approved by a voice vote this morning.

Likewise, a proposal from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) that would give more flexibility to small transit systems was incorporated into the managers amendment

Today’s final vote ends weeks of debate over how many amendments would be heard on the bill. To the consternation of Boxer and Democratic leaders, Republicans forced several votes on issues ranging from contraception to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. More than a dozen nongermane amendments were heard in a series of votes last week and yesterday.

Now, with its work completed, the Senate is hailing its effort as a bipartisan success.

Speaking on the floor, Boxer praised Republicans — especially Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) — who had worked on the bill. Before the vote, Inhofe said the process “has gone pretty well.”

The move now puts pressure on the House to move on a bill before a March 31 expiration of the existing transportation program.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has indicated he may pick up the Senate bill, but Republicans have warned they would make changes to the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this morning called upon Boehner to “move this bill as quickly as possible.”