Time: Conferees seem to be making little progress toward a pact. (Photo courtesy of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee)

The week of the conference, "I was sure that things were starting to move," says Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors’ highway and transportation division. But as days passed, Deery says he then wasn’t so sure. "If there are discussions going on behind closed doors, they are very tightly closed doors," he says.

Nick Yaksich, vice president for global public policy at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, believes conferees can beat the deadline. "I think it could happen quickly once they get an agreement on a number," he says.

The "number" is the central issue. The Senate bill equals $295.1 bil-lion over six years. The House total is $283.9 billion and the White House insists it won’t support anything higher. On June 7, Transportation Secretary Nor-man Mineta sent a 10-page letter to Young and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), reiterating the administration’s veto threat unless conferees agree to $283.9 billion.

"Bridging the gap...is absolutely critical," says Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.). Some senators say the two sides should settle on a figure between the House and Senate totals. But House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a key conferee, notes, "It’s not as simple as some have said." DeLay says he agrees with President Bush that the bill is an important jobs producer. "But we also have the responsibility to be fiscally responsible in how we approach it," he adds.

Complicating the picture, DeLay also is an ardent defender of donor states, such as his own, which pay more into the Highway Trust Fund than they receive in federal highway aid. DeLay told conferees, "It’s time for donor states to start to keep more of what they contribute." Industry officials contend, however, that donors’ desires can’t be satisfied by a $283.9-billion bill.

By Tom Ichniowski

Clean Water: Senate Panel Approves Small Hike for SRFs
In an encouraging development for water infrastructure supporters, the Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended a modest 2006 boost in federal aid for clean water revolving funds for states. The panel included $1.1 billion for state revolving funds, up $9 million from 2005, in an Interior-Environment spending bill that it approved on June 9.

After the full Senate approves the measure, it would have to be reconciled with the version the House passed on May 19, which allots $850 million for Clean Water SRFs. President Bush had proposed slashing the program to $730 million.

For drinking water SRFs, the Senate panel and the House each included $850 million, up $7 million from 2005.

Pensions: Bill Aims To Shore Up Multi-Employer Plans
Interest is rising in Congress to tackle problems in pension plans. House Republicans on June 9 introduced a bill that would make broad changes in the pension system, including multi-employer plans, which cover 9.8 million unionized workers and retirees in construction and other industries. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. estimates total underfunding of multi-employer plans topped $150 billion as of last Sept. 30.

Under the House GOP bill, multi-employer plans less than 65% funded would be put in a "red zone" and have to take remedial steps, including higher employer payments, cuts in expenses and limits on benefit accruals.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) plans to produce a pension bill by the August recess.

Energy: Senate Floor Action Starts On Comprehensive Bill
Amendments on global warming, as well as specifying what percentage of electric power should come from renewable sources and other subjects, were expected as Senate floor debate began June 14 on a wide-ranging energy measure. Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) hopes to finish the bill in two weeks.

After the bill clears the Senate, a difficult conference looms with the House, which approved its bill in April.

Compiled by Tom Ichniowski

s House and Senate negotiators began formal talks aimed at finally producing a multi-year transportation bill, the $11-billion funding gap between the two sides was no narrower. At the joint conference committee’s June 9 opening session, no agreements were reached on any substantive issue and the current highway and transit program extension was that much closer to its June 30 expiration. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) declared, "There will be no more extensions." But with no evident progress in the succeeding several days, that comment seemed optimistic.