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Senate Bides Time as Highway Bill Negotiations Continue

Collins departs from the weekly Senate Republicans luncheon on Nov. 10. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

It might feel like Groundhog Day with another deadline arriving to fund highway programs, but negotiators hope this one will be the last.  

They have until the end of the week to produce and advance a conference agreement on transportation programs, absent another extension. It's also the vehicle for reviving the Export-Import Bank.  

In the meantime, in an effort to pass a bill through the Senate that would uproot as much of the Affordable Care Act as possible, Senate Republicans will continue to work behind the scenes to prepare for the floor a substitute amendment to a House-passed budget reconciliation measure.  

And on the floor, there are other options for biding the Senate's time after Monday evening's vote to confirm a federal judge.  

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told CQ Roll Call there could be another attempt to bring up the fiscal 2016 Defense appropriations bill — something Democrats have continued to oppose, preferring an omnibus agreement uniting defense and nondefense discretionary spending.  

"We don't have time to do individual bills," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, who said an omnibus absent poison-pill riders is the better option.  

"I hope in the coming weeks our Republican colleagues will negotiate in good faith so we can provide certainty to the economy and help middle-class families across the country the way we have just helped veterans, with good, robust increases in spending that the budget agreement allows," Schumer said.  

But while Democrats said the real path forward is a catchall spending agreement ahead of the Dec. 11 shutdown deadline, there was word before senators departed for an extended Veterans Day weekend that the spending bill covering Transportation and Housing and Urban Development could be considered through a bipartisan agreement.  

All the floor activity for the week is really to set up what negotiators hope will be action on a long-term surface transportation conference report that can get to President Barack Obama's desk.  

The Senate formally appointed conferees just before leaving for the mid-week holiday. In the course of doing that, senators voted 56-31 to issue a nonbinding instruction to the negotiators pushing to stop the federal government from compelling states to allow double 33-foot trailers.  

"Thirty-eight states say these longer trucks are not safe, and they tell us that they don’t want them on the highways and byways," Sen. Roger Wicker said in a statement. "I think we should respect their decision. Today's vote against this federal government mandate sends a strong signal that we stand with the overwhelming majority of Americans who do not want to contend with these longer double trucks on their roads."  

The issue of truck lengths is also expected to come up during deliberations over the eventual omnibus appropriations bill, and there is no reason to think it would not resurface on the floor as early as this week if there is a standalone Senate T-HUD spending bill.  

Wicker called on both highway and appropriations negotiators to heed the Senate's vote. Fellow Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran is chairman of the full Appropriations Committee.  

Senators also backed, by voice vote, a bid by Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to promote the inclusion of funding for railroads to implement Positive Train Control systems. Blumenthal called the House proposal "outrageous" for not authorizing the funding in the Senate-passed transportation bill.  

The Senate had passed its highway bill at the end of July , with the House following suit before a week away from the Capitol for Veterans Day recess.  

A senior Democratic aide said Democrats were told Republicans might also attempt a test vote on legislation against "sanctuary cities" that don't enforce immigration laws, such as the bill known as Kate's Law favored by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

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