Key legislators are reporting progress in negotiations aimed at producing the long-delayed, highway-transit bill.
The House-Senate conference committee charged with reconciling differing versions of the transportation bill formally convened on May 8, but the negotiations seemed to go slowly.
What charged up the talks was a June 19 meeting in House Speaker John Boehner’s office at the Capitol, which included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.); Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.); the Senate committee's top Republican, James Inhofe (Okla.); and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.).
After that meeting broke up, Boxer and Mica said Reid and Boehner had directed them to step up their efforts toward reaching a deal.
In separate press conferences June 21 at the Capitol, Boehner and Reid both said the talks were moving along.
The developments were welcome news to transportation industry officials. "We're feeling a lot better than we did two days ago, for sure," says Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance.
Reid said: “I don’t think we’ll need an [additional] extension. I hope not. Now, I can't guarantee anyone here we're going to get a highway bill. But we’re certainly in much better shape than we were 24 hours ago.”
One positive sign that Reid pointed to was House passage June 20, on a strong 386-34 vote, of a motion to instruct that chamber's transportation conferees to produce a compromise measure within two days.
Reid said he had talked earlier that day with Boxer and Inhofe, important Senate negotiators on the bill, and added, “There’s significant progress being made. We hope that we can get this over the finish line."
Cohen says, "It appears that there's been a good amount of progress on...the highway title" of the multi-part bill, including provisions to expedite the approval process for highway and transit projects. That issue has been "one of the tougher ones," Cohen adds.
Boehner said during his press conference: “House Republicans want to get a highway bill done…and our colleagues are working toward producing a bill."
The Ohio Republican reiterated what the House GOP wants to see in the final version of the legislation: "We just want to make sure it’s a bill that includes real reforms and to ensure that taxpayer funds are paying for legitimate projects that support economic activity, not planting more flowers and beautification projects around the country."
He was referring to the provisions to "streamline" project approvals and to pull back on the current "transportation enhancements" program, which sets aside some federal highway funds for such things as bike paths.
Boehner added, "We also continue to support bipartisan job-creating initiatives like the Keystone [oil] pipeline.”
Boehner also said he had met with House Republican transportation-bill conferees and added, “Clearly, there is some movement that’s been under way since the meeting that I had with Senator Reid and Senator Boxer.”
Shortly after the press conferences, Boxer and Mica issued a joint statement, saying: “The conferees have moved forward toward a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on a highway reauthorization bill. Both House and Senate conferees will continue to work with a goal of completing a package by next week.”