Thomas says Bush would
sign $299-billion bill.

Senate and House funding proposals are getting closer on a multi-year transportation funding bill, but there is no deal in sight. That will force lawmakers to extend the highway and transit programs before they leave July 23 for a six-week break. If they fail to pass an extension, much of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation will shut down on July 31.

At a July 22 meeting of conferees on the long-term successor to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, House Republican negotiators floated a proposed funding level of $299 billion over six years in gross contract authority. Of that total, $283.9 billion would be guaranteed obligations. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who described the proposal, said that the figure has the support of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). But more importantly, "The President will support it and the President will sign it," Thomas said.

The White House threatened a veto of the $318-billion bill that the Senate passed in February and the $284-billion version that the House approved in April. That stance has slowed progress on a compromise House-Senate measure.

In the first public move to close the gap, on July 20, the lead Senate conferee, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) proposed $301 billion in contract authority, of which $289 billion would be guaranteed. The new House GOP concept would seem to narrow the difference further. But Inhofe said there wasn't enough support for the House plan among Senate conferees.

Inhofe said when he had heard what the House side was considering, he polled some Republican and Democratic Senators before the meeting. He said, "I can assure you that if we had a Senate vote now [on the $299-billion plan], it would fail. I don't want that to happen. But I do believe [$299 billion is] inadequate." Nevertheless, Inhofe said that "if we take it under consideration well be able to continue on" and ask tell staff to work and "see if there's a strategy where that number could be enhanced."

But Thomas dashed cold water on increasing the funding level above $299 billion, contending that President Bush wouldn't support a higher number. Thomas said, "It doesn't do us any good to talk opportunity in the future to enhance" funding. He added, "There are a lot of things we can do under this [funding number], but figuring out a way to raise the number is not one of them."

The House-passed bill included a provision to reopen the legislation and add funding after one year, but Thomas also indicated that wouldn't be acceptable to the White House.

With no agreement on a multi-year bill, lawmakers were mulling another extension. It would be the fifth stopgap transportation measure since last Sept. 30, when TEA-21 expired.

(Photo courtesy of Office of Rep. Bill Thomas)