House, Senate Clear Highway Bill Deal
Congress today overwhelmingly approved a sweeping package including highway and transportation language, a one-year extension of the current student loan rates and a five-year extension of emergency flood insurance.
Earlier this week, Republicans and Democrats ended months of haggling over how to proceed with the 27-month highway bill, legislation to avert a doubling of student loan rates and even the RESTORE Act, which will provide funds to states affected by the BP oil spill of 2010. The package cleared the House on a 373-52 vote and the Senate on a 74-19 vote.
The Congressional Budget Office today estimated that the conference report legislation would reduce budget deficits over the next decade by $16.3 billion. From 2013 to 2017, the nonpartisan budget-scoring office projects, the bill would lead to $96 billion in discretionary spending.
The final product, now headed to President Barack Obama’s desk to become law, was a labor of love, chiefly among top transportation negotiators — Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.).
Both Democrats and Republicans were able to claim victories once the ink had dried on the final package. Throughout the bicameral, bipartisan talks, Democrats felt like they were negotiating from a position of leverage, with the Senate having passed a two-year extension on a broad bipartisan vote. But House Republicans, knowing they needed a final agreement that could pass their more conservative chamber, wrangled several policy wins despite not coming to the table with a bill that could even make it to the floor.
Republicans were able to negotiate an easing in environmental standards, most notably a reform of environmental streamlining, the process by which sites for transportation and infrastructure projects must be surveyed to determine potential environmental repercussions of construction.
Democrats, on the other hand, were able to block Republicans from including in the final report the Keystone XL oil pipeline — a measure Obama repeatedly has threatened to veto — and a provision loosening the regulations on coal ash.
Four months from a presidential election, leaders of both parties were wary of allowing transportation projects and student loan rate discounts to lapse, which would have happened July 1 without Congressional action. Bundling all of the efforts together helped Democrats and Republicans alike in convincing their rank-and-file Members to find things they liked in the package and ultimately support the deal.
Though leaders have expressed an interest in passing appropriations bills later this fall, it’s uncertain the parties will have the will to do so as they angle to win reelection and the White House.
With that, today’s bill could be one of the last significant efforts of this Congress before a stacked lame-duck period in late fall.