Senate passage of reauthorization expected soon; pressure on House leaders grows

Source: Jason Plautz • Posted: Monday, March 12, 2012

The foot is on the gas pedal in the Senate as analysts expect a transportation reauthorization bill to finally clear the chamber early this week.

That puts all of the momentum with the upper chamber and could force the hand of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is still scrambling to pull together enough votes for a bill that could be tied to his disparate party. The House is out for the week, but members say that doesn’t mean the transportation bill will be out of their minds.

That is especially true with the Senate facing a final vote on its two-year, $109 billion plan as early as tomorrow. Senators cleared seven amendments and a budget control question Thursday afternoon and have 23 left to go. They are set to begin voting again tomorrow, and many observers are optimistic that the amendments could be taken care of in a day, with even a final vote coming that afternoon.

Even if the final vote slips to later in the week, there is little doubt that final passage is on the horizon. An initial cloture vote on the bill got 85 votes, indicating a bipartisan appetite to get the bill done ahead of a March 31 deadline.

“We’re certainly optimistic of a bill being off the floor by Wednesday,” said Alex Herrgott, a transportation lobbyist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The commonly held belief is that it will get done.”

There are still a few controversial amendments on the docket, including one that would offer incentives for natural gas vehicles and several Republican amendments that would devolve the federal funding programs to the state levels. Some analysts are also watching amendments on environmental reviews, tolling provisions and Buy America provisions.

Clean fuel groups and environmentalists are also watching a trio of amendments that deal with current energy tax credits. Biofuels groups — including Growth Energy and the National Biodiesel Board — are backing language from Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) that would extend clean energy tax credits, including those for biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol. However, conservative groups are pulling for one from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that would terminate some energy tax subsidies.

But none of those is so contentious that it could derail the bill. In fact, the most dangerous vote — a point of order accusing the bill of not complying with the Budget Control Act from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) — was dispensed Tuesday.

Pressure on the House

The House, however, is a different story. Boehner has failed to get enough votes on a five-year bill, and an 18-month alternative also collapsed. Now he has publicly stated that his plan is to “bring up the Senate bill or something like it,” a move that many see as an admission of political failure.

The House must pass a bill or a short-term extension before the transportation programs expire on March 31. Most observers say that even if the House brings up the Senate bill, it will face changes to policy language, setting up a conference with the upper chamber.

Senators are enthusiastic about the idea that Boehner might take up their bill. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said “I love it” when asked about the news, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged the House to “spare the American people another unnecessary battle and pass the Senate bill.”

Still, members leaving for their weeklong recess were optimistic that something would get done on a longer bill created in the House. Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) both said that pressure from constituents eager to get transportation projects done would push members to sign onto a long-term bill and get moving.

Herrgott said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had been touring several districts and has upped its advertising of late to try to get citizens engaged on the transportation bill.

“There’s a lot of education and communication that needs to happen,” he said. “Although we say that transportation is job number one, people don’t always get the urgency.”

Other players, including the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), are boosting their lobbying efforts, as well, to put pressure on Republicans to get a bill done.

Shuster said that members who were home were “going to talk to people, local community leaders that need that bridge, local community leaders that want a roadway completed,” giving them incentive to pass a bill.

And ultimately, Herrgott said, the March 31 expiration deadline would create enough urgency from citizens and interest groups to get the House to set aside politics and move their bill, whether it is the Senate version or their own.

“I think that groveling over who created the first version of the bill is a disservice to a struggling economy that demands a fully funded reauthorization now,” Herrgott said. “The members that we represent care very little who originated the package that ends up becoming law. What we need is an extension of the program so that we can continue making business decisions.”

Budget proposal in spotlight

Meanwhile, a Senate committee will also consider the Obama administration’s six-year, $476 billion transportation proposal that was included in the fiscal 2013 budget. That plan is largely seen as an afterthought in the authorization game, especially with the Senate moving so quickly.

The president’s plan is far more robust than the other options on the table but that has brought serious questions about its viability. The federal gas tax money is supplemented by the money saved from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a move many Republicans have attacked as a gimmick.

Thursday’s hearing in the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee will likely follow the same track as previous hearings in the Senate Budget and House Appropriations committees, where Republicans bashed the proposed pay-for. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — who will testify Thursday — has defended it as a solid funding plan and has said that the plan is better than offerings in previous years criticized for not having any pay-for.

LaHood has also publicly lobbied for Congress to take up the president’s plan, calling it the best reauthorization option out there.

But Republicans, while acknowledging that it is necessary to spend on infrastructure, are not likely to feel the same way. At a Budget Committee hearing last month, ranking member Kent Conrad (R-N.D.) said about the war savings, “There is no money there,” and others have poked the proposal as untenable and too costly.