Lawmakers are on track to clear a massive transportation infrastructure bill as soon as this week, a legislative coup a decade in the making that will give new House Speaker Paul Ryan something to crow about.
Negotiators from both chambers of Congress tasked with hashing out a final deal are set to announce an agreement Tuesday afternoon after a majority of conferees signed off on the package, setting the stage for the mammoth deal to move through the House and Senate this week, ahead of this Friday’s deadline. As expected, the bill also includes a provision to revive the Export-Import Bank, an export-promoting agency that expired last summer amid attacks from conservatives who said it provides corporate welfare and promotes crony capitalism.
The deal is a victory for Republican leaders, hungry to show they can govern both chambers after a tumultuous year that saw the resignation of former Speaker John Boehner in October and a slew of near-legislative calamities.
The bipartisan agreement is an especially big-ticket win for Ryan, who can point to the five-year package as emblematic of his promise to return the House to regular order.
The agreement provides roughly $300 billion for federal transportation programs and outlines the policy that will govern highway, transit and rail spending for the next five years.
House negotiators generally praised the bill’s policy but criticized the grab bag of budget gimmicks used to offset costs.
“You have to weigh — do the benefits of policy offset what I think are phony pay-fors?” Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) said after signing the agreement. “And so it creates … a classic Sophie’s choice.”
“It will do,” Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) said, adding that, at some point, Congress will need to address the Highway Trust Fund’s long-term solvency.
Negotiators said they begrudgingly swallowed many of the pay-fors, including a plan to dig into the Federal Reserve’s pockets to the tune of billions of dollars and a separate idea to funnel revenue from a customs fee levied on airline and cruise passengers to the highway fund.
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said he opposed using revenue from the customs fees but ultimately signed off the conference report.
The bipartisan deal is expected to pass both chambers but it’s unclear how fast leadership can shepherd it through, which may necessitate the need for one more short-term extension before current policy expires Friday.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said lawmakers will “probably” need to move one more short-term patch to buy time for a signing ceremony with Obama administration officials next week. However, she said she expects the Senate to clear the deal by the end of the week.
Boxer confirmed that provisions renewing health care programs for 9/11 first responders were ultimately not included, calling it “really a big disappointment that that didn’t get added at the end.”
“I think we should have done it, but you know what? It’s a negotiation. I didn’t get everything I wanted,” she said.
A Senate source confirmed that all but three Democratic conferees signed the report. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) didn’t sign off on the package because the first responders bill was left out, the source said, adding that Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also didn’t agree to the deal for separate reasons.
Even so, delivering a long-term, fully funded highway and transit bill to the White House would be a major coup — the first time Congress has accomplished the feat since George W. Bush was in the White House.
Getting to yes on a final agreement wasn’t easy. Negotiators had to navigate a web of policy questions on everything from teenage truckers to compensation for victims of the deadly Amtrak crash in May. The final deal maintains a Senate provision upping the total amount Amtrak can be forced to pay accident victims and retroactively applies the change to include the deadly Philadelphia derailment, which killed eight people and injured hundreds more.
GOP members told POLITICO the conference report contains a compromise on the controversial teen trucker provision included in the House bill. The pilot program will now target young veterans.
“Look, we’re giving them arms and asking them to protect our freedom,” Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) told POLITICO. “We don’t think they can drive a truck? So I think that that is OK by me.”
A separate provision dealing with rest breaks for truckers didn’t make the final cut, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) confirmed.
Conferees also haggled over how to pay for the bill and for how long it should run, after an unexpected extra cash pool materialized from a House proposal to tap into the Federal Reserve’s surplus account.
The proposal, offered by Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) and approved as part of the House bill, gave negotiators billions of extra dollars to put toward transportation programs.
Facing pressure from GOP leaders to wrap up negotiations by Monday, staffers worked overtime Thanksgiving week, even sleeping in their offices some nights, to hammer out every last detail.
Ryan’s team has repeatedly pointed to the transportation bill as an example of what leadership will be like under his speakership. The House overwhelmingly passed its version of the bill in early November, after a whirlwind few days of legislative debate and consideration of more than 100 amendments.
But many of the puzzle pieces that built the foundation for the final deal were already in place before Ryan nabbed the gavel at the end of October.
And while lawmakers worked through dozens of amendments to its version of the bill, behind the scenes House leaders ensured that the most controversial amendments, including several plans to hike the gasoline tax, never got a vote on the floor.
Critics of the bill have said the legislation is rife with industry giveaways and buoyed by several years of funding that relies on budget gimmicks and “sleight-of-hand” accounting tricks. But it will satiate road construction, highway safety, business and transit groups, which have worked through funding and policy fits and starts for the last several years.
Since 2009, Congress has mostly relied on a series of funding transfers totaling more than $65 billion to shore up the ailing Highway Trust Fund, which fuels most federal transportation spending.
These temporary patches have left states and transportation groups howling, saying they need several years of funding certainty to properly plan and implement long-term improvement projects to address the country’s aging infrastructure.
But Congress has shown no appetite to touch the third rail of transportation policy — the gas tax.
Receipts from the gas tax, which hasn’t been hiked in two decades, flow into the Highway Trust Fund to pay for the federal portion of highway, bridge, road safety and transit projects across the country. But spending from the fund has outpaced dwindling gas tax receipts for several years, resulting in an average annual shortfall of about $16 billion.
With this latest bill, Congress once again looks the other way on the issue, meaning lawmakers will be back to square one on the funding shortfall in just a few years.
“We’re not going to be solving that problem,” House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said bluntly after the only public conference meeting earlier this month.
“If you look historically, provisions for the Highway Trust Fund, user fees, always come — or always except for maybe the first one — have come in a tax bill, a tax reform bill. And I think there’s no difference on this,” he added.