The House has passed a legislative package that would avert a looming government shutdown, provide $28.6 billion to help storm and wildfire-battered areas rebuild after natural disasters, and suspend the U.S. debt limit through December 2022.
The package, which the House approved late on Sept. 21, includes a continuing resolution, or CR, that would keep federal agencies operating through Dec. 3. Without a CR before the federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, most programs would come to a halt. The measure was passed on a 220-211 party-line vote.
The package doesn’t include a stopgap provision to address another deadline for two important infrastructure programs—federal-aid highways and transit—beyond Sept. 30, when the current surface transportation authorization is due to expire.
Impact on IIJA and Its 5-Year Reauthorization Unclear
A key question is what impact the omission of a highway-transit extension will have on House passage of transportation groups’ top legislative priority, the $1-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA.
That measure, which the Senate passed on a strong bipartisan vote on Aug. 10, has as its central element a five-year surface transportation reauthorization including $303 billion for highways, a 35% boost over current funding levels.
John Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP, says that by excluding a highway-transit stopgap, “That ought to build very significant pressure to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill. That's my guess."
Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president for advocacy, says his group didn’t expect a surface transportation extension to be included in the CR-emergency relief package.
“What we’re looking for is a vote on the infrastructure bill, the IIJA, on Sept. 27," Hansen adds. "Once the House votes on it, presumably passes it, you don’t need an extension.”
Hansen says if a temporary transportation extension were included in the CR-emergency spending measure, “that would mean that they’re going to hold that [IIJA] bill hostage.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Aug. 24 had pledged to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by Sept. 27.
More recently, however, other senior House Democrats indicated the deadline could slip.
Construction and transportation groups see major problems for their industries if Congress fails to reauthorize the surface transportation programs by Sept. 30.
Brian Turmail, an Associated General Contractors of America spokesman, says if the authorizations lapse “the federal-aid highway and transit construction programs will expire, causing a slowdown and eventual end to federal payments to states for transportation construction projects already underway.”
Turmail told ENR via email, “Thousands of construction jobs and projects are on the line.” He adds, “Not only will further delay impede a wide variety of new projects from hitting the street to bid, but funding for ongoing construction projects is also in jeopardy.”
'Big Number' for Corps Storm-Relief Projects
AGC said it welcomes the new House package's significant infusion for post-disaster reconstruction funds. The Army Corps of Engineers would get $5.7 billion, more than 20% of the bill's disaster-aid total.
“It’s a big number," says Doyle, a former senior Army civil works official, "and it covers virtually all of the major Corps accounts.”
He adds, “Not surprisingly, it’s focused a lot on Hurricane Ida.” For example, $3 billion of the Corps total would go to speed construction of flood and storm-damage reduction projects. And half of that $3 billion would be directed to states with declared major disasters from Ida.
Another benefit to state agencies and other nonfederal project sponsors, Doyle notes, is that the Corps expects the bill would have a 100% federal share.
FHWA, HUD Funding
Also under the bill, the Federal Highway Administration’s emergency relief program would receive $2.6 billion to reimburse states and territories for the costs of post-disaster repairs to major roads and bridges.
The Housing and Urban Development Dept. would get $5 billion for its disaster-recovery Community Development Block Grants for disasters occurring in 2020 and 2021. Those grants can be used to restore housing and infrastructure, as well as for economic recovery and mitigation activities.
The overall CR-disaster relief measure might clear the House but, Turmail says, is "considered doomed in the Senate," because of the package's suspension of the debt limit.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has maintained that Republicans won't vote to suspend the debt limit. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Pelosi are apparently trying to move GOP lawmakers off their debt-limit stance by tying the must-pass CR and much-desired disaster aid to it.
So far, however, there are no signs that McConnell has altered his position. Turmail says it is "highly unlikely" that the bill would get the minimum 10 GOP votes it needs for Senate passage.
McConnell and Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the Appropriations Committee's top Republican on Sept. 21 offered a counterproposal. It consists of a CR through Dec. 3 and substantial disaster relief funds, including $6.1 billion for the Corps of Engineers civil works program.
Story updated on 9/22/2021 with House vote, Senate Republicans' counterproposal, and correcting bill's disaster relief total to $28.6 billion.