House and Senate negotiators have had their first formal meeting to draft a new multi-year transportation bill, and the major issues--broad differences in funding and a battle between donor and donee states--were on lawmakers minds. A difficult path lies ahead: no major provisions were resolved and the conference isn't scheduled to meet again until June 23.

One sign of the tough task conferees face is that the first meeting, held June 9, came more than eight months after the previous bill, the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, lapsed. Federal highway and transit programs have been operating since TEA-21's Sept. 30 expiration under a series of short-term extensions. The current extension, the third such measure, runs out on June 30. Unless a stunning breakthrough in the conference occurs in the next three weeks, another extension will be needed.

Negotiators must reconcile the gap between the $318-billion, six-year Senate version and the House's bill, which provides $284 billion over that same span. Then, lawmakers must try to convince the White House to accept their compromise number. The Bush administration has objected to anything higher than its own $256-billion plan.

Inhofe named to chair conference

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), whom conferees named to chair the joint meetings, opened the session, saying, "We've spent a long time on this. Unfortunately, we're about $34 billion apart between the House and the Senate and a figure that's far above what the administration says that they will accept. All sides have drawn the line in the sand in terms of the amounts....It doesn't serve any useful purpose to bring that up today [so] we can start working on the bill."

The conference vice-chairman, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), also acknowledged, "We do have a difference of opinion in the numbers," but he added that differences on "non-money issues should be resolved very quickly."

Young : Resolution of donor-donee issue needed

Young told Inhofe, "When it comes to the numbers I'm hoping that we will sit down and work with both your leadership and my leadership in the House, arrive at a figure so we can write a bill that will take care of the principles that we set forth in our bill and that is to improve the transportation system and, yes, to solve the donor-donee problem."

House Majority Leader Tom De Lay (R-Texas), who could well be an important player in the conference, agreed that the needs of donor states, which include Texas, should be addressed. "This is and should be the number-one priority in this legislation for many of us....Reforms of scope and rate of return are not merely parochial issues. They go to the heart of the fundamental fairness that is currently lacking in transportation funding. There are those of us who will be compelled to fight for that fairness. It is a serious, widespread and urgent problem. Its time for reform has surely come."

The top Democrat on Young's committee, James Oberstar of Minnesota, noted that the conference meeting took placed on the sixth anniversary of the signing of TEA-21. Oberstar recalled, "Then, as now, the issue was money...then as today, the overall issue of funding was one that we had to resolve first." He added that "the policy issues depend on the total dollar amounts."

But not everything is the same as in 1998, Oberstar noted, "The dynamics are different this year. We recognize this is a major presidential election year and...our process will be influenced."

(Photos courtesy of office of Sen. James Inhofe and office of Rep. Don Young)