The federal highway bill: less than a week to go

Updated
 

In his weekly address, President Obama spoke about oil production and energy policy in general, but also spent some time shining a light on a pending piece of legislation that’s going to matter quite a bit this week.

For those who can’t watch clips online, this was the important part of Obama’s comments:

“So much of America needs to be rebuilt right now. We’ve got crumbling roads and bridges. A power grid that wastes too much energy. An incomplete high-speed broadband network. And we’ve got thousands of unemployed construction workers who’ve been looking for a job ever since the housing market collapsed.

“But once again, we’re waiting on Congress. You see, in a matter of days, funding will stop for all sorts of transportation projects. Construction sites will go idle. Workers will have to go home. And our economy will take a hit. This Congress cannot let that happen.”

Well, Congress shouldn’t let that happen, but time is running out.

As we discussed two weeks ago, the Senate easily approved a bipartisan, two-year, $109 billion highway bill. The package was crafted by one of the chamber’s most liberal members, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and one of its most conservative, James Inhoffe (R-Okla.), before passing the chamber on a 74-to-22 vote.

Ordinarily, easy Senate passage of the highway bill would have led to a lot of sighs of relief. After all, the highway bill is critically important to financing infrastructure projects nationwide, and is usually one of the year’s least-contentious legislative fights. Everyone knows this bill has to pass.

But with the Republican caucuses moving so sharply to the right, this year is … tricky.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made his transportation bill one of his top 2012 priorities, only to see it fail spectacularly. The Speaker instead signaled recently he’d try again with the Senate bill.

This, of course, leads to two questions: (1) can the House pass the Senate version? and (2) what happens if it doesn’t?

On the first question, this should be an easy lift for the House, but as we’ve seen many times over the last year, what should happen in the lower chamber and what does happen are two very different things. Rank-and-file Republicans effectively believe the nation will be better off if Congress invests less in infrastructure, and the bipartisan nature of the Senate bill doesn’t seem to matter.

As for the second question, if the House rejects the Senate bill, Congress will be forced to pass another short-term measure – the latest in a series of short-term extensions – before existing funding expires this Saturday (March 31).

Regrettably, this temporary extension appears to be the most likely route. Because rank-and-file House Republicans perceive the bipartisan Senate bill as insufficiently right-wing, the lower chamber is eyeing a 90-day extension of existing transportation funding.

This is hardly ideal – short-term bills make it very difficult for states to do any sort of meaningful transportation planning – but at least there won’t be a disaster, right? Well, maybe. Brad Plumer reported this morning on congressional prospects.

[W]ith time running out, the bill is being considered under a suspension of the rules, which means it needs a two-thirds majority in the House to pass. And that’s far from assured. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats, who would prefer the House just take up their bipartisan two-year highway bill, have quietly conceded that they’ll consider a short-term extension instead – say, 45 or 60 days – to avoid immediate chaos. But the Senate’s also running out of time, and there’s the danger that even a short-term bill could get caught in the snags and delays and cloture motions the chamber is famous for.

Odds are, the House and Senate will figure something out, and soon.

They’ll have to – current funding stops in about five days.

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Highway Bill and Infrastructure

The federal highway bill: less than a week to go

Updated