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Highway Bill Prospects Are Dim As Congress Returns to Session
Monday, 14 September 2009 00:00
Other Issues Take Lead on Legislative Agenda.

When Congress went back into session last week, the prospects for passing a long-term highway bill appeared to be dimming as other issues continued to dominate the legislative agenda.

“Unfortunately there will have to be a compromise instead of a long-term authorization,” said Rod Nofziger, director of government affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “I think that the new deficit and debt projections make getting a long-term authorization in place and the funding sources for that more of an uphill battle.”

Before leaving for the August recess, the House and Senate agreed on a roughly $7 billion patch for the ailing Highway Trust Fund, but the two bodies still differ on how to approach a long-term transportation bill.

The Senate, supported by the Obama administration, favors an 18-month extension of the current highway bill to take effect when the bill would otherwise expire on Sept. 30.

The House, however, led by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is continuing to work on a long-term, six-year authorization bill and opposes a significant delay.

“Right now, we’re not paying attention to what the Senate is doing,” said Jim Berard, a spokesman for Oberstar. “The schedule is still [to] wait for Ways and Means to mark up the revenue title, then we’ll bring our bill to full committee markup and put the two together.”

Calls to the Ways and Means Committee were not returned by press time, but the committee’s Web site did not list any upcoming hearings on the transportation bill.

A Senate staffer who asked not to be identified told Transport Topics on Sept. 10 that they expected Senate leaders “to send a bill to the floor this week, if not today.”

That bill, the staffer said, would be a combination of the 18-month extension that a series of committees passed in late July, minus the $7 billion used in the short-term trust fund patch passed before breaking for recess, but providing “almost $19 billion” for the trust fund.

Despite Oberstar’s pushing, it appears unlikely that a long-term bill will be enacted this year.

A transportation lobbyist, who asked not to be named, told TT “the reality that nobody is talking about” is that “nobody wants to tell Chairman Oberstar that he’s not going to get a bill.”

“In every meeting that you have [Hill staff] tell you: ‘We’re not getting a bill now and, in fact, it’s somewhat unlikely that we’re going to get a bill next year,’ but no one wants to tell Mr. Oberstar that,” the lobbyist said.

In addition to funding issues, there’s a lot of “little battles,” ranging from donor-donee issues to truck sizeand- weight limits and hours of service.

Berard said Oberstar would not commit to a compromise extension, but there was “a whole lot of wiggle room” between the Senate’s proposal and a shorter term extension.

The Senate staffer said that the “18 months isn’t the monolithic thing some in the Senate want to believe it is,” and suggested that if House leadership “is going to be at all deferential to Oberstar, I don’t see how it ends up being 18 months.”

The highway bill is not the only piece of legislation being pushed back, as Senate Democrats said they are pushing back introduction of sweeping cap-and-trade climate change legislation until later this month.

Transport Topics, 9/14/2009