Highway bill enters legislative homestretch
WASHINGTON (AP) — Defying expectations, Congress has reached the homestretch on a major overhaul of federal transportation programs that is critical if the nation is to avoid steep cutbacks in highway and transit aid.
The bill is driven partly by election-year politics. Both Congress and President Barack Obama have made transportation infrastructure investment the centerpiece of their jobs agendas. But the political imperative for passing a bill has been complicated by House Republicans' insistence on including a mandate for federal approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The White House has threatened to veto the measure if it retains the Keystone provision.
And there are other points of disagreement between the GOP-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate, including how to pay for transportation programs and how much leverage the federal government should have over how states spend their aid money. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said it's unlikely Congress will pass a final bill until after the November elections.
Despite LaHood's pessimism, lawmakers and transportation lobbyists said they believe prospects are improving for passage of a final bill by June 30, when the government's authority to spend highway trust fund money expires. The fund, which pays for roads and transit, is forecast to go broke sometime next year.
A House-Senate conference committee is scheduled to begin formal negotiations May 8.
It has taken Congress years to get this far. Work on a transportation overhaul began before the last long-term transportation bill expired in 2009. The Senate finally passed a $109 billion bill with broad bipartisan support in March. The bill would give states more flexibility in how they spend federal money, step up the pace of road construction by shortening environmental reviews, impose a wide array of new safety regulations and boost funding for a federal loan guarantee program to encourage private investment for major infrastructure projects.
House Republicans, after failing to corral enough votes to pass their own plan, recently passed a placeholder bill that allows them to begin negotiations with the Senate. That bill included the Keystone provision, as well as provisions limiting the public's ability to challenge transportation projects on environmental grounds and taking away the Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate toxic coal ash.
"I feel like people are worn out on this issue and would like to get something done," said Jeff Shoaf, a lobbyist with the Associated General Contractors of America, a trade association for the construction industry. "I think the prospects are good."
Winning approval of the Keystone provision, which would give federal regulators no choice but to approve a pipeline to transport oil from Canada's tar sands, appears to be House Speaker John Boehner's top priority, lawmakers and transportation lobbyists said.