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Meanwhile, conference committee members are set for series of meetings in order to try to reach a deal on a bill by their self–imposed deadline of week’s end.
“Starting today we are meeting for hours, and we’ll let you know when we have an agreement,” Boxer said.
Boxer said she was meeting “with the principals” but declined to provide any other details.
The bicameral, bipartisan conference committee is made up of 47 lawmakers and charged with negotiating a transportation package that can pass both chambers. The panel will have to decide soon whether an agreement can be reached or whether it should instead pursue a short-term extension of current law.
Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), were not optimistic that a deal could be reached.
“My suspicion is that we end up with a six-month extension,” Upton said.
The stakes are high, with billions of dollars for transportation projects and related jobs around the nation riding on Congress’ ability to pass a bill, said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is a member of the conference committee.
“If we do an extension, it kills the construction season in states that know what winter is all about,” said Durbin, who blamed Republicans for the stalemate.
In March, the Democratic-run Senate passed, 74-22, a surface transportation bill that would extend programs for two years and provide $109 billion for projects. After failing to pass a GOP House version, Republican leaders are still trying to negotiate a bill that can win support of freshman conservatives in their caucus. Tea-party-affiliated freshmen in particular have been skeptical of the need for a highway bill and the spending in the Senate package.
“Sixty-one thousand highway workers in Illinois will have their jobs in jeopardy if Speaker Boehner refuses to call up the Senate bill,” Durbin said.
Not only does an extension threaten jobs, Durbin argued, but it also cripples the nation’s ability to finance improvements and expansions of transportation infrastructure that is at capacity.
“What we are doing now is limping along with existing projects, with no promise of long-term funding, so any major project in my state is put on hold,” Durbin said. “If we had, at least, a two-year agreement, that project goes forward.”
Durbin demurred when asked whether he would oppose an extension, if that were all Congress could achieve.
“I am not saying I wouldn’t vote for an extension,” Durbin said. “I would do it pointing a finger to the House.”
He sent a letter last week to the GOP Members of the Illinois delegation, calling on them to demand a House vote on the bipartisan Senate transportation bill.