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Just How Long Is the Senate's Highway Roadmap?

Inhofe and Boxer unveiled their chunk of the highway bill June 23. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate might actually try to follow-up a long overdue education reauthorization with a real highway bill.  

Just how long the Senate's surface transportation bill will run remains a mystery, but Republicans and Democrats want to go much further than the House's latest patch job.  

"Three [years] would be good. Four would be better," Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters on July 16 when asked for how long the Senate bill might reauthorize highway programs that lapse at the end of the month.  

The uncertainty stems, as is so often the case, from the need to provide offsets to fill the gap between existing taxes and the price tag of a fully funded highway bill.  

Environment and Public Works Chairman James M. Inhofe told reporters he was holding out hope a six-year bill may be possible, a goal shared on both sides of the aisle.  

And on transportation, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, Charles E. Schumer of New York, seemed optimistic about the Senate finding a bipartisan deal, adding that his caucus could support a Republican plan, "depending on the details."  

"The bottom line is we've pushed Republicans for a long-term plan and increase in funding. They're on that path. That’s very good," Schumer said. "Now we’ll see how many bumps in the road are in the path as we move forward."  

Cornyn said Democratic leadership had been offered a menu of offsetting provisions to consider.  

"The reason we didn't have a vote on cloture today and we kicked it over to Tuesday is to give our Democratic friends a chance to internalize what we've offered and to tell us which of these pay-fors are going to be acceptable, and I think [Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah] laid out roughly $82 billion worth, which would get you roughly a five-year bill," Cornyn said. "Of course, some of them are more controversial than others. So the question is ... how much do we dial up or what sort of length of time can we get? And that's directly related to how many of these pay-fors that can be agreed to."  

However, senators also admitted worries about the feasibility of enacting that plan before the July 31st deadline, and Inhofe acknowledged a patch might be necessary.  

"If we're not ready, and I have every expectation that we will be ready, but if not, it might take a short patch. Maybe a month," Inhofe said.  

The patch Inhofe warns may be necessary would be "totally different" from the five-month patch passed earlier in the week by the House.  

That measure would extend highway and transit programs through Dec. 18, with the hopes of using new revenue derived from an overhaul of the tax code over the long haul. But the Senate seems loathe to follow along.  

“The House, that’s predicated on the assumption that we want to get to the end of the year and it gets mixed up with tax reform. It has some issues," Inhofe said.  

Cornyn also said on July 16 he was "confident" the highway bill would become the venue for debating the revival of the lapsed charter of the Export-Import Bank. If an earlier test-vote is any indication, the credit authority has the support of in excess of the 60 senators needed to overcome an expected filibuster led by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah. And on July 17, Sen. Rand Paul, who like Cruz is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, announced his intent to try to get a vote on blocking federal funding for Planned Parenthood through the amendment process.  

As for the effect of using a larger basket of offsets for a more extensive highway bill on the budget standoff that looms in late September over funding the government and averting sequestration, Cornyn quipped, "you're kidding," when asked about it by a reporter outside his Capitol office.  

"We're going to leave that fight until September, October, November, December," Cornyn said. "We know it's coming, but in the meantime I think it's good to get some work done like a cybersecurity bill, a highway bill, an education bill and some of these other things."  

Inhofe would also like to complete a toxic substances overhaul bill before the August recess, something he said he thought could be processed in perhaps three days. EPW ranking Democrat Barbara Boxer has long criticized that bill and would like to offer amendments.  

"She wants some amendments. She's entitled to amendments," Inhofe said. "I think she will agree to not too many amendments."  

There have also been rumors that senators will depart earlier than originally planned for the August break — which could give all of them incentive to play nice.