|(Source: House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Senate Environment and Public Works and Banking Committees, ENR)|
The Senates passage of a new transportation measure puts lawmakers in a race toward a May 31 deadline for a final version of the long-delayed legislation. The Senate bill, approved May 17 on a resounding 89-11 vote, must be reconciled with one the House passed April 2. The big difference is money. The House calls for $283.9 billion over six years. The Senate bill has $11.2 billion more. It provides $251 billion over five years, but adding 2004s approved funding makes its total $295.1 billion.
The $11.2-billion spread is a key to the bills fate. The Bush administration has warned of a veto if the final total tops the House mark. Time is pressing. Transportation programs have operated under a series of six extensions since Sept. 30, 2003, when the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century expired. The sixth stopgap lapses May 31. With a Memorial Day recess to start May 28, that leaves few days for House and Senate conferees to reach a compromise.
Nevertheless, the lead Senate negotiator, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), says, "I want to get the bill through and meet the deadlines. Im not talking about extension."
That will be tough. But Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association vice president for government affairs, says, "The vote in the Senate gives the bill tremendous momentum thats been lacking. And if the leadership in the House and the Senate were committed to wrapping this bill up by the end [of May] it certainly could be done."
A major factor is satisfying donor states, which pay more in fuel taxes than they receive in federal highway aid. Donors had wanted to boost returns to 95% of their user-fee contributions, from 90.5% now, notes Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoffs senior vice president for government affairs. But even with the added $11 billion, the Senate bill only hikes donors to 92%, and not until 2009. "How much lower than that can they possibly accept?" Connor wonders. If conferees split the difference between the House and Senate totals, "I think youre reopening the whole donor-donee issue," she says.
Can Senate and House conferees settle on a bill and an amount that the President wont veto? Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) says that to finish the bill quickly its important "for the White House to directly or indirectly send some signals to conferees, especially to the House leadership, what they could if push came to shove, at the last moment...accept." If that acceptable figure appears, "then all the pieces would start falling together," says Baucus. "But...absent that, it would be very difficult to work it out in conference."
Immigration: Bill Would Revise Guest Worker Program
One provision would set up a market-based temporary worker program. It would let employers hire foreign workers if no U.S. worker is able to fill a job. Foreign workers first would have to clear security background checks, medical exams and pay for a three-year visa. "By doing away with outdated numerical caps on this program, this bill recognizes that the needs of the U.S. economy are constantly in flux," says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the bills sponsors. A new electronic employment verification system also is included.
Energy: Senate Panel Drafting Bill
Senate committee leaders want to get a bill to the floor by late June. President Bush wants a final bill in August, but melding the Senate and House versions wont be easy. Says Flint: "I think conference is going to take a while."
Corps: Senate Confirms Civil Works Nominee Woodley