Collingwood - FOTOLIA

The Democrats' takeover of the House and Senate in the Nov. 7 elections--the biggest turnabout since the Republicans won control of the House in 1994--will change the legislative landscape for construction firms in the new Congress, but industry officials don't expect major differences on infrastructure issues.

Control in the Senate was unsettled until two days after the election, when Republican Sen. George Allen conceded to his Democratic challenger, former Navy Secretary James Webb. That gave Democrats a total of six more seats in the Senate and a 51-49 majority in the chamber, counting independents who are expected to vote with Democrats.

In the House, Democrats gained 28 seats, according to the Associated Press, 13 more than the minimum they needed to achieve a bare majority. The results will revamp the leadership lineup,including a set of new committee chairs in both chambers.

"I would expect not a whole lot to happen in the lame duck," says Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors' highway and transportation division. He thinks appropriations will combine the unfinished spending bills "in a big package…and call it a day."

Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoff's senior vice president for government affairs, says, "There's not enough time for [Democrats] to reorient the [2007 appropriations] bills to reflect their priorities." She adds, "I'm assuming they do a 'CR' into next year. I think the bigger question is: Do they do a longer CR?" to cover all of fiscal 2007, which ends next Sept. 30.

Connor also hopes that in the lame duck session lawmakers will pass a bill to make technical corrections to last year's big SAFETEA-LU transportation measure. The expected continuing resolution could be a vehicle for the corrections measure.

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  • Steve Hall, the American Council of Engineering Companies' vice president for government affairs, hopes that Congress will wrap up water resources legislation in the lame duck deliberations. Before the pre-election recess, House and Senate negotiators were working on a final version of a new Water Resources Development Act, which would authorize more than $12 billion for Corps of Engineers projects.

    In the new Congress, "Next year, it's kind of a mixed bag" for industry, says Hall. "I think the results give us some new opportunities in the areas of infrastructure funding." The major infrastructure bill in 2007 will be aviation reauthorization.

    Hall says industry wants to increase aviation funding, and also for water programs. "We may see a more receptive audience up there in the new majority for those kinds of things," he says. But on other items, such as small-business health plans and tort reform, "Those agenda items are going to be a bigger challenge."

    Hall says industry wants to increase aviation funding, and also for water programs. "We may see a more receptive audience up there in the new majority for those kinds of things," he says. But on other items, such as small-business health plans and tort reform, "Those agenda items are going to be a bigger challenge."

    The new committee chairs are expected to include James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, Transportation and Infrastructure; Charles Rangel of New York, Ways and Means; and California's George Miller, Education and the Workforce. On House Appropriations, David Obey of Wisconsin is the most senior Democrat.

    Much of the legislation that affects construction is handled by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Oberstar, the committee's likely new chairman, is well-known to the industry. He has been on the panel since 1975 and was a staffer on what was then the Public Works Committee before that. "I don't see a major change" on that committee, says AGC's Deery. "Clearly Oberstar is a real advocate of infrastructure spending in general." He also expects "a strong environmental bent from Oberstar."

    Parsons Brinckerhoff's Connor agrees, "Clearly he's going to be more pro-environmental, more pro-transit, more pro-rail perhaps than the current Republican leadership," but she doesn't see a change in basic funding issues. She says that one issue will be whehter the panel takes the approach that its main funding focus should be on increasing traditional gas-tax sources or support more innovative financing. Oberstar hasn't been a major supporter of toll roads.

    Casey Dinges, American Society of Civil Engineers' managing director for external affairs, "The tradition of that committee has always been to move bills….I suspect that is a strong tradition that will continue." He adds, "I guess the question becomes: Is the infrastructure agenda going to move up" on the Democrats' list of legislative priorities. He notes that iin the campaigns, Democrats "were kind of quiet about their agenda….It's not like the 'Contract With America' that the Republicans had back in 1994. There was nothing like that here."

    For Democrats, "It's only a two-year window here. The presidential [election race] is going to start unfolding, which makes you kind of wonder how much progress is really going to occur in the next two years. If that's the case, the public may have some heightened expectations about how quickly things are going to 'change', because we're in such a political environment now."