With a final agreement on a new, multi-year transportation bill still elusive, President Bush has signed into law another short extension of the federal highway and transit programs. The latest stopgap, the eighth since September 2003, continues funding through July 19. Bush signed the measure on July 1, the day after it was approved by the House and Senate. The previous extension ran out at the close of June 30.

House and Senate negotiators have been engaged in "almost nonstop" meetings in recent days, trying to work out a deal on the outline of a new multi-year bill, a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee aide says.

The Senate side recently proposed an obligation limit of $286.5 billion over the life of the bill. That's $3.5 billion less than a $290-billion proposal Senate negotiators made June 20 and the $295.1 billion provided by the measure the Senate cleared on May 17. But it is still $2.6 billion higher than the $283.9 billion in the bill the House passed March 10, which the White House has said is the maximum it would support.

The new multi-year legislation would be the long-awaited successor to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which lapsed on Sept. 30, 2003. Extensions have been the order of the day since then

The Senate staffer characterizes the talks as "constructive and ongoing." Issues on the table include the minimum return "donor states" would be guaranteed for fuel taxes they pay into the Highway Trust Fund. The Senate proposal is a 92% return by fiscal year 2009, the envisioned measure's final year.

Conferees also are discussing how the $17 billion allotted for "discretionary projects" should be divided between the Senate and the House, the Senate committee aide says. Under TEA-21, the House received 80% of the funds for projects and the Senate 20%, but Senate negotiators are looking for 40% this time, according to the staffer. The project funds would not be counted in the 92% donor state return calculation.