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Senate Passes Long-Term Highway Bill, Short-Term Extension

Inhofe and Boxer conferred before an interview with CQ Roll Call about the highway bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 2:14 p.m. | The Senate passed its long-term highway bill (HR 22) shortly after noon Thursday, and then agreed to a House-passed three-month extension (HR 3236) before completing work for the day.  

The margin for final passage of the long-term bill was fairly healthy, 65-34. The House's patch was passed in overwhelming fashion: 91-4.  

For senators involved in crafting the bipartisan bill — a six-year authorization with about three years worth of offsets to plug the hole in the Highway Trust Fund — the solution is not ideal. They would have preferred the House stick around to at least consider accepting the Senate bill.  

But absent that, as Environment and Public Works ranking member Barbara Boxer told CQ Roll Call, they want House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and ranking member Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., to see how closely they can work to the Senate's bill in crafting their own.  

"My preferred alternative is that they get our bill as early as possible ... and they look at and the two of them sit down, just like we sat down. And they have a good relationship, I want to make that point, they really do," the California Democrat said. "It's not up to me or Jim to write the House bill. It's up to them."  

Boxer was making reference to her longtime Republican counterpart at EPW, Chairman James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma.  

She suggested it should be easier for the House because the Senate already developed a list of pay-fors from various sources for three years. Much of that work was done with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in consultation with the other committees of jurisdiction over the highway bill.  

Inhofe echoed that sentiment during the joint interview with Boxer earlier this week, saying "they could be spending all this time working on that, and when we come back after the recess we could ... quickly put a bill together."  

House and Senate negotiators will have an incentive to work quickly, particularly if the end of October ends up being the time for a much bigger debate.  

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said Wednesday in a letter to congressional leaders "extraordinary measures" to avert a default on the federal debt will likely run through at least late October, "and it is likely that they will last for at least a brief additional period of time."  

That lines up with the expiration of the highway extension, and will come about a month after Congress will need to act on a stopgap continuing resolution to keep the government funded for the start of fiscal 2016.  

The House passed a bill to continue transportation funding through October 29, with about an $8 billion transfer to the Highway Trust Fund, before making a quick escape.  

The Kentucky Republican is counting the broader highway bill as a win, even though it is certainly incomplete.  

"The multi-year nature of this legislation is one of its most critical components. It's also something the House and Senate are now united on. We all want the House to have the space it needs to develop its own bill, because we all want to work out the best possible legislation for the American people in conference," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "So we’ll take up a measure this afternoon to give them that space, while also delivering important relief to veterans."  

McConnell's decision to work with Boxer to cut a deal allows him to make another claim that the Senate's gotten back to work. That's even though on the transportation measure he again made use of procedural tactics to curtail the offering of amendments that he frequently derided while in the minority.  

The highway coalition split both parties throughout, as evidenced by the 65-35 vote to limit debate on the underlying bill Wednesday. Thirteen of the 35 against were Republicans, and the concerns expressed about the legislation ran the gamut. Some senators objected to the attachment of a authorization of the Export-Import Bank, some contested various offsets and still others questioned the efficacy of safety provisions.  

Now, all of those issues and the extent to which they were resolved by the Senate will be matters for both the House and likely the eventual conferees who will have to hammer out differences between the two bills.

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