Sides Begin Touting Highway, Loans Deal

Posted June 27, 2012 at 6:03pm

After months of wrangling, Congressional leaders zeroed in on a deal Wednesday to extend transportation spending authority for two years and current student loan interest rates for one year in what might be one of the last major legislative victories before November’s elections.

Democrats and Republicans alike feared the political ramifications of policy lapses that could stall millions of highway workers’ jobs and double more than 7 million students’ loan rates. Facing a June 30 policy deadline, a holiday recess and a House-imposed legislative cutoff, Congressional leaders arm-twisted their negotiators and rank and file to get behind the agreement to extend the interest rate levels for one year and federal highway and infrastructure projects through September 2014.

Much of the day was spent in a holding pattern, especially on the Senate side, where leaders and negotiators waited to hear from House Republicans whether the compromise that had been delicately pieced together would hold. Republicans gave up their demands for language expediting the Keystone XL oil pipeline and provisions on toxic coal ash, while Democrats agreed to ease certain environmental protection rules, including shrinking the time frame regulators have to survey project sites.

Leaders were seeking to tack a five-year flood insurance bill onto the agreement as well, hoping that the necessity of each of the three pieces would be perceived as greater together. Moreover, voting for everything in the hours before recess makes it more likely that any potential objectors would feel pressure from their colleagues to keep quiet so everyone can jet home.

“I am so glad that House Republicans met Democrats half way, as Senate Republicans did months ago,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a statement Wednesday.

“We speed up project delivery, cut red tape, and do it without jeopardizing environmental laws,” Boxer continued. “Our country needs the kind of economic boost that this bill offers, and I am looking forward to getting it to the president’s desk.”

Boxer and her House counterpart, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), needed to deliver a final product with legislative language by Wednesday night to satisfy House rules requiring a bill to be posted three legislative days before a vote.

But late Wednesday evening, leaders still were waiting for final legislative language to present to their respective caucuses, even though Members and aides began releasing statements touting a deal without any substantive claims that they had finished one.

Despite falling short of their goal to see the Keystone XL oil pipeline authorized, House Republican aides pointed to what they said were significant victories they scored in the talks, including provisions that ensure federal dollars are spent on high-priority “core” infrastructure projects, give more autonomy to states to opt out of federal mandates that might divert funds to noneconomic beautification-type projects, cutting permit time for projects in half and eliminating duplicative surface programs.

“This bill is far from perfect, but it is a substantial improvement over the original Senate bill,” a House GOP leadership aide said about the emerging agreement.

The deal maintains current spending levels over the next two years and does not include earmarks, in line with the Congressional moratorium on Member-directed spending and unlike many transportation bills before it.

“This is the jobs bill for the 112th Congress,” Mica said in a statement Wednesday.  “The unprecedented reforms in this legislation — cutting red tape, truly making projects ‘shovel ready,’ shrinking the size of the federal bureaucracy, attracting more private sector participation, and giving states more flexibility to address their critical priorities — will ensure that we more effectively move forward with major highway and bridge improvements and put Americans back to work.”

Aides to both parties suggested that the legislation would create 3 million jobs.

Earlier in the day, Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works panel and a close partner of Boxer’s on the measure, broadly addressed the conservative Members of his Conference without sharing specifics of the ongoing negotiations, according to one Senator in the closed-door meeting.

Negotiators had been frustrated that details of the tentative agreement leaked because of the urgency with which Congress needs to approve the measure and the struggles House Republican leaders, in particular, have had in rallying enough votes for important bills.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — who along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told Conference leaders last week to “get it done” — chose eight freshmen for his 20 conferee slots in the hope that if they approved the conference report, he would have an easier time ushering the agreement through the House.

Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) resolved the first piece of the legislative Rubik’s Cube earlier in the week, when they negotiated a one-year extension of the current student loan interest rates of 3.4 percent. That agreement would be offset by an increase in pension contributions from federal workers and a six-year cap on loan subsidies for part-time students.

Another major offset for the larger transportation package is a “smoothing” of private-sector pension payments, first pitched by Reid earlier this month.

If all proceeds according to plan, the House and Senate will vote on the package by the end of the week.