Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (left) and Chairman Barbara Boxer are on the conference committee hammering out a final highway bill.
The Senate legislation includes some modest reforms to the transportation and infrastructure system while authorizing projects both sides have touted as jobs-creating. The House measure is a temporary extension of current law that includes language attempting to force action on the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Boehner’s original draft bill was a five-year measure that would have more seriously reformed the system but cut more project funding.
GOP aides pointed to programmatic reform as a place where negotiators might be able to find compromise. The House legislation reorganized and consolidated about 100 programs within the four major relevant agencies — the Federal Transit Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Highway Administration — into 35 programs. The Senate bill does some of this consolidating, but not as significantly. House sources believe the Senate bill is a start but that the negotiators could do better.
Some of the largest points of contention will likely be the inclusion of the Keystone pipeline and earmark rescission.
The pipeline has become part of nearly every major policy debate this year, with Republicans pressing for its authorization and touting it as important for the economy and the White House repeatedly threatening to veto any bill that includes it.
The composition of the conference is assuredly Keystone-friendly, with bipartisan Senate advocates such as Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). But the panel also includes top Senate Democrats Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.), who will likely take the side of Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who has pushed back against the pipeline.
But regardless of how intense talks might get inside the negotiating room, don’t expect too many press events outside it, according to sources. No one wants to poison the well too soon as both parties try to navigate toward a deal.
But even promises of civility aren’t likely to keep leaders from subtly digging each other to get things done.
In a statement released Friday about the most recent jobs report, for example, Reid called on House Republicans to help pass the bill.
“Creating jobs must remain Congress’ top priority,” Reid said. “Unfortunately ... the House is sitting on bipartisan bills to save three million transportation jobs, and modernize the postal industry. There is no reason why we should not pass these common-sense jobs bills without delay — no reason except for Republican obstruction.”