As lawmakers scramble to reach agreement on a highway bill by week’s end, they appear to be leaving decisions on many big, politically tricky questions for last, such as whether to include language to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
“We’ll take all that up after” the transportation-focused issues are resolved, Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said off the Senate floor Wednesday.
On orders from their leadership, Boxer and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) are pushing to reach a deal on a transportation infrastructure bill by the end of the week.
Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), a member of the conference committee working on the bill, agreed that decisions on Keystone and other non-transportation-related issues would be left for last with leaders expected to weigh in.
“Those [transportation issues] are difficult enough,” Ribble said. “I think, quite frankly, on Keystone, that is probably going to be above everybody’s pay grade where leadership is going to get engaged.”
As transportation talks are ramping up, Congress also is working to pass legislation that would prevent an increase in student loan interest rates, which Democrats would like to do in conjunction with the transportation bill.
“It would be easier if you address them together,” a Senate Democratic aide said. “That would definitely be our preferred approach.”
However, no decisions have been made, and Republicans and Democrats remain at odds over how to pay for the both measures.
While the two issues will not necessarily be linked, both have the same deadline, with student loan interest rates set to double July 1, the same day transportation funding will cease to flow unless Congress either puts in place a new transportation measure or an extension of the current law.
Along with Keystone — a 1,700-mile pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast that the GOP has been pushing to include on the final bill — Republicans have also called for a provision that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from setting enforceable safeguards for coal ash as well as inclusion of the Restore Act, which would send most of the fines from the 2010 BP oil spill to Gulf Coast states.
But before addressing those issues, Republicans want to reach agreement on reforms, including easing of environmental regulations in an effort to allow infrastructure projects to be completed more quickly.
“Reforms are critical,” said Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), also a member of the conference committee. “No one in America believes that it should take 14 years” to complete a highway project.
The GOP is also calling for the consolidation of transportation programs and a scaling back of transportation enhancements, which is the primary source of funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.