Congress this week again extended SAFETEA-LU by approving H.R. 4281, what might reasonably be labeled the kicking-the-can-down-the-road road bill. This 9th extension buys 90 days of time for the House and Senate to come to terms on a new, surface transportation authorization measure. And while putting off a decision on a multi-year bill is not favored by stakeholders the alternative—a complete expiration of program authority—would be far more problematic. (The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee release refers to “a devastating shutdown of highway and bridge projects” if the Senate didn’t follow suit.)
The Senate-passed MAP-21, S. 1813, which garnered 74 votes in that chamber, was touted by Senate and House Democrats as the simple answer to the House Republican Leadership’s unprecedented dilemma of having difficulty amassing sufficient votes to approve a surface transportation bill that was reported from committee nearly 2 months ago. But that short-cut to a final bill was unlikely for reasons including House rules. House Members approved the extension, through June, by a vote of 266 to 158. The vote was held off until a couple days before SAFETEA-LU was to expire and legislators are to start a two-week recess to give the Senate side few options other than to take the House extension or risk program shutdowns.
Attempts were made by Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to substitute the short-term H.R. 4281 with her 2-year MAP-21 but her motions failed to win the necessary (to make for speedy consideration) unanimous consent. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) objected each time. If Senator Boxer had succeeded the bill then would have to go back to the House where one might expect it to be blocked, MAP-21’s bipartisan credentials notwithstanding.
That doesn’t mean that the Senate bill doesn’t stand a chance on the House side. The bill’s co-author is conservative James Inhofe (R-OK) and MAP-21 won the votes of a substantial number of Senate Rs. And while Inhofe has stayed clear of the “pass MAP-21″ chanting another Republican–DOT Secretary Ray LaHood–hasn’t held back. And there are others.
MAP-21′s urban and rural transit provisions are more to the liking of that sector and while its freight sections are not all that they could have been–major provisions produced in the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee having been left out on the way to passage–those titles have more to recommend than one finds in the House version. Among other things the Projects of National and Regional Significance category is given new life in the Senate bill. (On the down side, neither bill goes farther than to offer an anemic “sense of” Congress provision on the growing problem of under spending Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund resources on navigation channels.)
So, expect the pressure to build for House action on a version closely resembling the Senate bill if the Majority continues to struggle in assembling votes for its 5-year version, H.R. 7, the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act.
What now? Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and John Mica (R-FL), chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, continue their recruitment effort to get sufficient votes to pass H.R. 7. They face the opposition of many Democrats, which puts much of the onus on the majority side to produce the votes. The lack of earmarks in the bill certainly doesn’t help that but then part of the problem all along has been that the Republican Conference’s many anti-earmark freshmen just have not warmed to the idea of a 5-year, $260 billion dollar transportation bill.
And if you think a 90-day extension actually gives Congress 90 days to find common ground you don’t know Washington math. There are fewer more than 30 legislative days on the calendar between today and the start of July…when the next extension may be needed. Pbea
(An earlier version of the above appears on The Ferguson Group Blog at http://thefergusongroup.typepad.com/grants/2012/03/ninety-days-and-counting.html)