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Carper sets ‘aggressive’ timeline for marking up Senate highway bill

House Democrats look to June to take up their version

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper wants to bring a highway bill before his committee on May 26.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper wants to bring a highway bill before his committee on May 26. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee tentatively plans to mark up its highway bill next Wednesday, a schedule that the chairman acknowledges is “a bit aggressive.” 

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., told reporters Wednesday that his committee, which has jurisdiction over the highway portions of the surface transportation bill, has penciled in its markup for May 26. 

“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “We’re literally working as we speak, exchanging language with our Republican colleagues and working with legislative counsel to actually draft this big bill, and to start drafting a lot of language. It’s a work in progress.” 

By contrast, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., has ruled out marking up the House version of the bill before Memorial Day, saying simply he’d mark it up “soon.” Staff for the House panel say a key delay has been the need to evaluate the $14.9 billion in earmark requests that members submitted.

[Lawmakers happily embrace return of earmarks to highway bill]

House Republicans on Wednesday released a five-year, $400 billion surface transportation reauthorization bill of their own.

“Republicans want to work together on bipartisan infrastructure solutions, but in order to reach that goal, key principles must be addressed in this process,” said Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Sam Graves, R-Mo. 

Language awaited

Neither House nor Senate Democrats have released a surface transportation bill. Senate Republicans have offered a $568 billion infrastructure “framework,” a two-page document with topline funding levels for highway and other surface transportation elements, as well as airports, water systems, ports and broadband.

The House GOP bill does not include funding for passenger rail, water, ports, airports or broadband. House Republicans on May 13 introduced a separate wastewater bill that would reauthorize the Clean Water State Revolving Fund at $14 billion over four years.

Above and beyond the surface transportation reauthorization legislation, President Joe Biden has proposed a $2 trillion plan that the White House calls a “once in a generation” investment in a broad range of infrastructure projects.

While Senate Republicans are negotiating directly with the White House on the overall infrastructure proposals, Graves made it clear that his surface transportation reauthorization proposal is aimed at getting GOP principles included in the committee’s eventual bill.

“I strongly believe that the path to improving America’s infrastructure is through partnership — not partisanship,” Graves said.

Regardless of what happens with Biden’s broader plan, the surface transportation legislation is considered a must-pass bill; the current highway law, a one-year extension of the 2015 law, expires on Sept. 30. Although Biden has pitched his infrastructure plan as separate from the surface transportation bill, lawmakers are likely to fold the reauthorization legislation into a broad infrastructure package.

The House GOP bill, according to a summary, includes long-held Republican priorities, such as streamlining the regulatory process to speed up projects and reduce costs, and focuses heavily on rural communities. It would establish a new Office of Rural Investment within the Department of Transportation and increase the set-asides from urban formula grants to smaller, transit-intensive communities. 

It would set a governmentwide goal of limiting the time required for environmental reviews and approval for major infrastructure projects to two years. It would also establish a competitive grant program to test the safe integration of automated driving system technologies.

And it would expand a pilot program created in the 2015 highway law to study the possibility of charging vehicles for miles traveled — a potential replacement for the gas tax, which currently pays for federal highway programs. The GOP bill would also require the Transportation Department to establish a national VMT implementation pilot program for government-owned vehicles by Oct. 1, 2026.

Deron Lovaas, a senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, dismissed the House GOP plan, saying it was not ambitious enough in tackling climate change. 

“The time for business-as-usual infrastructure spending came and went decades ago,” he said. “We need investments that will build the world we want in the 2050s, not a return to the priorities of the 1950s.” 

White House talks

Republican House members released the bill as Senate Republicans are continuing still-fruitless talks with the Biden administration on a broader infrastructure bill.

On Tuesday, a group of Senate Republicans huddled with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, White House Counselor Steve Ricchetti, Director of Legislative Affairs Louisa Terrell and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese for a second round of talks with Republican ranking members of relevant committees on the proposals in Biden’s $2 trillion plan and the GOP’s $568 billion counterproposal. 

Republican senators said the meeting in Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s office was “productive,” but acknowledged no deal was reached. They plan to resume talks with the White House later this week. 

Capito, R-W.Va., the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the group is still settling on categories of infrastructure and conceptual details on how to pay for the plan, though she added, “We really need to find out what we’re gonna pay for before we figure out how we pay for it.”

Speaking to Bloomberg TV on Wednesday, Capito she said she hopes to reconnect with the White House on Thursday or Friday. “I think we’re all dedicated to finding an end result here,” she said, adding, “We do have the will … but it’s going to have to come together quickly.”  

She said the next two weeks will be critical and they hope to “have much more clarity by Memorial Day.” 

But she expressed skepticism that the bill would be ready by July 4, saying, “It’s hard for me to see July 4 as an end date.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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