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In Highway Debate, Durbin Channels His Inner Jamie Whitten

Durbin said the Finance Committee needs to find highway money. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin and other Democrats have praised the efforts of the Environment and Public Works Committee on a six-year highway bill, but are stressing that the Finance Committee needs to find the money for a full authorization measure.  

"It's time for my friend Orrin Hatch to step up and be chairman. Make some tough decisions. Help us move forward in the Senate with a bill," Durbin said.  

Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, has held several hearings on the issue of funding and financing for surface transportation programs, but the panel has yet to come up with what might be $90 billion in revenue sources needed to pay for the Highway Trust Fund beyond existing user fees.  

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican Conference chairman and a member of the Finance panel, said Wednesday there's a possibility the six-year highway plan unveiled and advanced through the EPW Committee this week by Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., and ranking member Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., could be scaled back in duration if less money is found.  

Durbin quipped that as a senator from the "world of appropriation," he recognized the significance of needing to be able to spend real dollars, recalling a conversation with a legendary appropriator, the late Rep. Jamie L. Whitten, D-Miss. In addition to serving as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Whitten led the Agriculture subcommittee for a generation and became known as the "permanent Secretary of Agriculture."  

"Jamie Whitten, that name means nothing to you I'm sure, but he was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and I told him I wanted to go on the Budget Committee. He said, 'The Budget Committee deals in hallucinations and the Appropriations Committee deals in facts.' A lot can be said about authorizing, too," Durbin said. "It's great to authorize, but you need real money."  

While Durbin would not speculate on how his caucus might treat another stopgap highway extension of surface transportation programs should one surface in late July ahead of a deadline, he did say that he has sensed a shift among Democrats.  

"The reason I raised this issue about a month ago in our caucus was I was sick and tired of these short-term extensions and I thought that we have been entirely too passive and docile on this, but I think we've changed. I think our message has been much more clear and forceful," Durbin said.  

Durbin's comments to reporters just after a news conference with the Democratic leaders from both sides of the Capitol, pressing for action on both highway programs and the Export-Import Bank soon after Congress returns from the July Fourth recess. The highway bill has been the expected vehicle for addressing the Bank as well.

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