As yet another cutoff of federal transportation funds approaches, House and Senate negotiators are about to sit down to begin formal talks aimed at developing a new, multi-year transportation bill. The House named its 52 conferees on June 3, following the Senate's naming of its contingent in late May. The first formal meeting of the two sides may take place on June 9, says Will Hart, spokesman for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Environment panel Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate's lead conferee, is "pleased that the house has appointed conferees and [he] looks forward to getting to work," says Hart.

Most of the conferees, unsurprisingly, are, like Inhofe, top members of the committees that oversee highway and transit authorizations. But a couple of the conferees have even higher congressional posts: Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).


House and Senate aides have done some preliminary work. Hart says staffers from each side have had discussions with each other and are attempting to develop a "side-by-side" document comparing the differing versions that each chamber passed. That will allow the staffers to "find areas where they are in agreement and then determine the issues that are going to be the priorities for negotiations."

Undoubtedly, the central issue will remain the size of the legislation. The Senate version totals $318 billion; the House bill provides $284 billion. But the White House has objected to anything higher than its own proposal of $256 billion. All three bills cover six years.

The new legislation would be the successor to the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which provided about $220 billion over six years. TEA-21 expired last Sept. 30 and since then the federal highway and transit programs have been operating under a series of three short-term extensions. The current extension expires June 30. If the conferees can't strike a deal on a new six-year bill by then, another extension will be needed.

If no bill is approved by June 30, federal highway and transit agencies would be forced into a virtually total shutdown.