Construction industry officials were encouraged to see long-delayed highway-transit bills move to the House and Senate floors in early February, but their mood shifted when both measures stalled just before the Presidents Day break. Although votes on difficult amendments lie ahead, congressional leaders still view the bills as priorities and are seeking to regain the momentum.
In the House, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) decided to split up into separate parts the transportation-energy package he had constructed, apparently because there were not enough votes to approve the combined bill. On Feb. 16, the House did pass the energy portion on a vote that largely tracked party lines. That measure aims to spur offshore and onshore oil and gas drilling and use some of the resulting royalty payments to help fund road and bridge construction.
Quick action on the other portion, a five-year, $260-billion transportation measure, is unlikely. Boehner said about 300 proposed amendments had been filed; some have Democratic supporters. Perhaps the most contentious is an amendment that would reverse the bill's provision to cut off transit's Highway Trust Fund aid.
"There is clearly angst on both sides of the aisle over a number of issues," Boehner acknowledged on Feb. 16. "But I believe that [Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica] and his committee and the floor of the House will produce a very successful bill."
In the Senate, a two-year, $109-billion, bipartisan, transportation-only bill was sidetracked by non-transportation amendments some lawmakers were pushing.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, "We're going to finish the highway bill," adding, "We're going to take some votes that aren't related to this bill, but it's something we need to do."
Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president, says that while the bills made progress, "more work needs to be done. This is the legislative process. … It's not a pretty process, but that's the way 'regular order' is around here. It's fits and starts."
David Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association senior vice president for government relations, notes that after more than two years of stopgap surface-transportation authorizations, multi-year bills are now on both floors. "[Even with the slowdown in action] I'm not at all disappointed," Bauer says. "Comparatively speaking, 2012 is gangbusters compared to 2011."
Bauer adds, "What happened was a reminder to everybody in both chambers that these are complicated bills that are not easy to do."
In fact, Bauer says one reason why some senators are trying hard to attach non-transportation amendments is that they see the highway-transit bill as one of a few measures with a good chance of passage in this election-shortened legislative year.
But the highway-transit bill faces a deadline well before the election. Lawmakers must take some sort of action on transportation funding by March 31, when the latest short-term extension expires.