A multi-year highway-transit measure stayed alive in the Senate as lawmakers voted to proceed with the bill.
The legislation, the product of a bipartisan deal between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Environment and Public Works Committee's top Democrat, Barbara Boxer (Calif.), would authorize federal highway and transit programs for six years. But it only includes three years of guaranteed funding.
The procedural measure was approved late on July 22 by a 62-36 tally, winning slightly more than the 60 votes needed.
That action allows the Senate to start debate on the transportation measure and begin to consider amendments, which could be a lengthy process.
The vote marked a positive turn in the bill's fortunes. One day earlier, the Senate rejected the same vote to close off debate on the legislation.
That earlier vote took place just several hours after McConnell and Boxer announced their agreement. Senate Democrats, and some Republicans, objected to taking up the bill without having had a chance to read the details contained in its 1,030 pages.
A cost estimate for the new package wasn’t immediately available. But its highway title appeared to be about $270 billion, its transit authorizations approximately $59 billion and its highway-safety section about $4.5 billion.
But the actual guaranteed funding was less than half of those amounts, because the last three years’ authorizations in each title were larger than the first three.
The July 22 vote was a positive step for the measure. But if the bill's proponents prevail, they still face a tough path ahead and a tight deadline.
Possible amendments include a likely proposal to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. The bank’s charter expired on June 30, and it has been unable to approve any new loans since then.
If the Senate does approve the highway-transit measure, it would then go to the House, which on July 13 had passed a new extension running only through Dec. 18.
There have been 33 other stopgaps over the past several years, making it difficult for state highway agencies to launch major multi-year projects and for construction firms to get those contracts.
The House legislation includes $8.1 billion in new revenue, enough to keep the struggling Highway Trust Fund in the black through December.
If Congress fails to pass a further authorization by July 31, the Dept. of Transportation has said it would have to furlough workers and would be unable to obligate new funds for highway projects.
McConnell said on July 21 that he believed the House would consider the measure. But Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) disagreed, saying, “I don’t think there’s a chance in the world they’re going to take up this bill."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) noted the new stopgap that his chamber approved and said that measure also would let the House "continue to work to get a long-term, fully funded highway bill in place." He added, "Obviously the Senate feels otherwise. They've got a process under way and we'll see what happens."
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told reporters that having a six-year bill, though not fully paid for, is necessary to let states start major new projects, which can take as long as 10 years to finish.
He also says a short-term measure wouldn’t include policy changes to speed up projects’ environmental reviews, something he strongly supports.
Moreover, Inhofe says the bill has provisions aimed at prodding lawmakers to come up with funding for its final three years. He says it has a mechanism to bar further expenditures at the end of the measure's third year if funding years four through sixth isn’t in place at that point.
Inhofe says, “So that’s putting the pressure on to make sure that [the additional funding] is going to be done and I can assure you it will be done.”
Story revised and updated on July 22 to include second cloture vote.