Feb. 8, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Cautious Optimism on Loans, Highway Bill

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats and Republicans are making progress on a transportation bill and an extension of current student loan rates.

Congressional leaders were cautiously optimistic yet again Tuesday that an extension of transportation spending authority and a deal on student loan interest rates could be struck by midnight Wednesday, but several major stumbling blocks stand before an agreement, despite sunny pronouncements from negotiators.

With every hour of closed-door talks, the mood among aides shifted on whether an agreement could be reached to satisfy both House rules on how long legislation needs to be posted before a vote and the Saturday deadline for both big-ticket items.

In public statements, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) conceded that a deal on extending the current student loan interest rates, set to double July 1, is imminent. But negotiators still aren’t sure how to proceed, whether to tie the measure to the transportation bill or to move it separately if it appears that bill is flailing.

“We have to have an agreement by tomorrow. Otherwise, we can’t get the bill done. And we’re very close to having everything done, but until we get everything done, nothing is done,” Reid said Tuesday. “I appreciate the House Republicans working so well. I know we can pass a bill. But as I told my caucus, everyone has to be very, very patient now and wait and see how the process works out.

“It won’t include everything we did here in the Senate. I’m sure of that,” Reid continued before saying he was convinced it could be a good bill.

Perhaps the statement, including rare praise for House Republicans, was a warning to Reid’s rank and file who have expressed consternation about the GOP’s demands for easing environmental rules beyond changes already agreed to in the Senate’s $109 billion, two-year bill.

Senate Democratic leaders have long expressed the opinion that House Republicans would have to come closer to their position, given the broad bipartisan vote in the Senate in March. House GOP leaders never brought Speaker John Boehner’s (Ohio) highway offering to the floor, and the 74 votes the Senate bill garnered have left many rank-and-file Democrats in no mood to give more to House negotiators.

Most of the GOP grievances are based on long-argued items not included in the Senate bill, chiefly the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but other points of contention include language easing coal ash regulations and changing the way environmental permits are processed.

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