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Ahead of Recess, Highway Bill Standoff Gets Political (Video)

Norquist (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Norquist (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When the Senate returns from the July Fourth recess, lawmakers will have just about two weeks to fix a shortfall in funds for federally-backed highway projects, with both parties again in a dispute over taxes.  

If past is prologue, that means campaign-style events with bulldozers and hard hats will be coming to a city near you, and there still might not be a good solution. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee has floated plan to keep highway projects from grinding to a halt — but that solution has already drawn the ire of Republicans.  

Still, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., says talks will continue, and he remains open to GOP suggestions, which would clearly include spending cuts.  

“I’ve been talking to a number of my Republican colleagues individually, inviting them to bring their amendments to deal with, for example, spending reductions, and I’m going to look at them carefully,” Wyden said. There’s a markup planned for Thursday morning on his $9 billion patch, which would provide revenue to fill the Highway Trust Fund pothole for the rest of the year.  

Wyden conceded that jurisdictional issues with GOP amendments to slash spending could be “one of the challenges” in reaching a bipartisan deal.  

“I’m going to do everything I can to accept ideas, make this bipartisan,” Wyden said.  

At the same time, he pointed to the urgency of the situation; the trust fund will go out of balance on July 18, which he called “the transportation equivalent of a government shutdown.”  

The top Republican on the Finance panel, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, is calling for spending cuts to pay for the patch.  

“In order to find a real solution to resolve financing for the Highway Trust Fund, the Committee must act in a bipartisan manner and forge compromise by including a sizable amount of reductions in wasteful and low-priority spending,” Hatch said in a statement. “Unfortunately, even after weeks of negotiating, today’s Chairman’s Mark does not accomplish this goal. Moving forward, I will work in good faith with the Chairman and members of the Committee to create a balanced bill that can pass both chambers and be signed by the President.”  

Finance Republicans gathered on the first floor of the Capitol Monday evening to discuss options, a meeting senators said did not lead to any conclusions about the GOP position.  

“We didn’t have any consensus coming out of our caucus, so I don’t know how easy that’s going to be,” to find a fix, said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa.  

But Democrats are gearing up to bludgeon Republicans over the issue.  

“If the Republicans want to shut down highway construction in America, I think they’re making a big mistake. At a time when we need people working, building infrastructure to enlarge the economy, we shouldn’t be quibbling over what I consider to be a minor consideration,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.  

Wyden’s plan proposes harvesting the $9 billion in revenue needed to fill in the shortfall for the rest of the year through an assortment of tax code tweaks that Americans for Tax Reform said would run afoul of the Grover Norquist-led group’s well-known taxpayer protection pledge because it would increase income tax revenue.  

Reid said Wyden and Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., made a presentation during Tuesday’s caucus lunch.  

“The first problem is that this is the same issue we’ve had on a number of bills where you have 10-year offsets for six months of spending,” said Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, noting that he needed to review the specifics.  

The shortfall has already become an issue in this year’s Kentucky Senate race, where a fight over a single bridge has become the emblem for the larger problem of funding infrastructure, and it might be a harbinger for other races as well.  

On June 20, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes offered their own proposals to replace the Brent Spence Bridge, which links Covington, Ky., with Cincinnati, Ohio. The bridge replacement’s been reported to cost about $2.6 billion. President Barack Obama used the Brent Spence bridge as a backdrop for a 2011 event touting a jobs bill.  

The Kentucky proposals would provide enough in the way of offsets to more than resolve the current $9 billion highway funding hole that Wyden is seeking to resolve, but the opposite side of the aisle isn’t likely to have much appetite for either of them. McConnell proposed getting budgetary savings from repealing the prevailing wage law known as the Davis-Bacon Act, which his office said would save about $13 billion. Standalone efforts to undo the wage guarantees in that act have run into trouble, even in the GOP-led House.  

“The Davis-Bacon Act is legislation from the Great Depression era that is even older and more obsolete than the Brent Spence Bridge itself,” McConnell said. “It needs to be repealed.”  

Grimes, meanwhile, bundled together an assortment of tax provisions from previous Democratic policy proposals that have gone nowhere in practice, including offshore tax provisions and eliminating accelerated depreciation for corporate jets.  

Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.    

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