WASHINGTON, July 22, 2015 – With the current highway funding provisions set to expire at the end of the month, House and Senate members find themselves in a game of legislative chicken over which chamber has the best plan to move forward.
In the House, 312 members voted last week to extend highway funding for another five months, giving Congress until Dec. 18 – the Friday before the Christmas holiday and the last scheduled legislative day of 2015 – to figure out a longer term solution. On Tuesday, the Senate failed to invoke cloture – or end debate -- on the DRIVE Act, a long-term bill that would authorize highway funding for the next six years and fund the program for the next three years.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., vowed Tuesday morning that Democrats wouldn’t stall the bill, but threatened to vote against the procedural measure to advance the legislation, citing insufficient time to review it. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., finalized the measure over the weekend, but members didn’t receive the bill – which tops 1,000 pages – until Tuesday afternoon.
The DRIVE Act passed unanimously out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in June, and last week, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the bill’s author and committee chair, said in remarks on the Senate floor that transportation funding hasn’t been addressed “in the right way since 2005.”
Despite the defeat of the cloture motion, Senate leaders seem committed to passing a long-term bill before the August recess, but House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., appears to want to include highway and transportation funding as part of broader efforts on tax reform.
In a statement released last week shortly after the House voted to approve the five-month extension, Ryan said the House bill “gives us the best opportunity to produce and pass a long-term bill . . . this year. This is the right approach, and the Senate should move quickly to adopt this extension.” In an email to Agri-Pulse, a spokesman for the Ways and Means Committee noted that the extension expires at the end of the year, ”so we hope to have a longer-term solution, perhaps through international tax reform, before then.”
Once advanced, the Senate deal faces the risk of again getting bogged down in the political process as Republican senators and presidential candidates Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky look to push their policy stances on non-related issues before the August recess. Cruz wants to vote on a measure that would remove the current exemption provided to Congress and staffers from the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, and Paul is renewing his push to defund Planned Parenthood in light of a recent controversial video.
However, a multiyear highway bill would be a big win for McConnell, who would be able to tout success on an issue a Democratic majority was never able to resolve. After the failed cloture vote – on which he and Boxer both voted “no” – McConnell said he hoped to try again on Wednesday. If that vote succeeds, he said the Senate may have to be in session this weekend to finalize the bill and get it to the House before they adjourn for the August recess.
“I haven’t threatened a Saturday session all year, but there will be a Saturday session, and probably Sunday as well,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon. “We need to keep at it. That will require us most definitely to be here this weekend.”
Andrew Walmsley, a director of congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation, said AFBF doesn’t have a policy position on either of the bills before Congress, just that the federation – like most everyone else in the debate – wants a long-term solution some time soon. He said AFBF wouldn’t be opposed to the House’s short-term extension if it leads to a long-term bill before the December expiration.
“We would obviously like to see a long-term bill,” Walmsley said. “I think logistically, getting that done before August is pretty tough.” He added that neither bill has many changes directly affecting agriculture aside from the obvious assurance of a reliable highway infrastructure.
Perhaps the biggest issue with highway funding is the funding itself. The House pays for its extension through $8 billion in offsets coming from sources such as tax compliance and budgeting for the Transportation Security Administration. The Senate bill provides three years’ worth of funding, leaving it to the next Congress to decide on how to fund the second three years of the bill.
A long-term bill would obviously require more funding, and many lawmakers appear to be unwilling to increase the gasoline tax, the major source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund. Since 1993, the gas tax has been assessed at a rate of 18.4 cents per gallon, but House Republicans remain vehemently opposed to either increasing the tax or indexing it to inflation.
So the issue essentially comes down to which chamber blinks first. Since the House has already approved its bill, all 435 members of that chamber could just leave town and basically force the Senate’s hand on an extension. The Senate could also refuse to take up the House’s solution, pushing instead for the long-term DRIVE Act. Inhofe, however, said in remarks last week that he doesn’t see this debate devolving into all out road rage.
“I would suggest that people may think that there’s some type of an adversarial relationship between our bill in the Senate and the House bill; there isn’t,” Inhofe said. “We’re working together, we both want to accomplish a long-term bill.”
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