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Democrats Object to 'Bipartisan' Senate Transportation Reauthorization Bill

We look at what happened in the Senate on Tuesday when the six-year DRIVE Act, relying on a variety of non-user fee revenue mechanisms to finance the Highway Trust Fund shortfall for three years, failed a procedural vote, and where it goes next.
July 23, 2015, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that a bipartisan agreement has been reached on a six-year surface transportation bill that will increase money spent on roadways and transit systems," writes Ashley Halsey III, transportation reporter for The Washington Post.

The Senate bill (S.1647 - Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act), known as the DRIVE Act, was received favorably by the Environment and Public Works Committee on June 24.

Calling the bill bipartisan because it has the agreement of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, may only go so far.

Heather Caygle of Politico writes that "Democrats banded together Tuesday afternoon to vote against moving the bill forward, over concerns that lawmakers hadn’t had time to read the 1,000-page-plus proposal. Democratic staffers even circulated emails pointing out that the bill is lengthier than 2010’s Affordable Care Act."

"We're not going to vote on a bill we haven't seen," (Minority Leader) Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters. "We'll vote on it but not favorably," saying that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should "join us to postpone this vote," reports Jordain Carney for The Hill, referring to a scheduled Thursday procedural vote on the bill at 4 p.m., though some outlets stated it would occur on Wednesday, as does McConnell's Wednesday (July 22) press release:

“I regret that yesterday’s procedural vote on the multi-year, bipartisan highway bill wasn’t successful.

"But some members said they wanted more time to review it before agreeing to talk about it, so we’ll take that procedural vote again later today. And because we’re still determined to get this to the House in a timely manner, we expect to work through Saturday to ensure we do..."

Spending and Funding

Six years beats five months in terms of transportation funding in the House Republican $8 billion patch bill, H.R.3038the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2015, approved on July 15. Halsey III writes that "(t)he bill would increase by about $2 billion the $52 billion that Washington currently distributes to state and local transportation officials."

Since gas taxes and other fees and taxes contribute only $34 billion annually to the Highway Trust Fund, leaving a shortfall of $16 billion, McConnell and Boxer must have found $54 billion in offsets. Halsey III indicates where they found it:

Money to cover the first three years of a six-year authorization was cobbled together from various sources, most of them involving tinkering with or extending federal regulations or payment schemes. Two of the largest sources came from the reduction of the mandated dividend for large banks and selling 101 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.


The Senate action comes 10 days before funding for highways and transit is set to expire. It lobs the ball into the House’s court [if it passes the Senate], a week after that chamber voted to extend funding at current levels until Dec. 18. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said that will allow time to overhaul the corporate tax structure, making changes that he thinks will help pay for transportation.

As the House debate on July 15 showed, there were lots of complaints that the bill would be the 34th funding extension since the last four-year bill, SAFETEA-LU, the 2005 surface transportation funding bill expired in 2009 [first extension posted here]. A short term extension, opponents argued, would not help state transportation agencies that needed to sign long-term agreements with contractors. 

Jordain Carney of The Hill writes that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), "who is running for president, will offer an amendment to the roads bill that 'ensures no Iranian nuclear deal unless Iran recognizes Israel and frees American hostages,' his office said on Tuesday." However, "filibuster" did not appear in the article.

Noticeably absent from discussion was talk of reforming international tax codes to fund the shortfall, Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) preference for long-term infrastructure funding. Ryan is the author of the House patch bill.

Hat tip to The AASHTO Daily Transportation Update

Full Story:
Published on Tuesday, July 21, 2015 in The Washington Post
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