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Senate Taking Scenic Route on Highway Bill (Updated)

Senators confer before a July 9 news conference. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

UPDATED 7:17 p.m. | Senate negotiators on a long-term highway bill worked out some issues in a new version unveiled Thursday afternoon, but lawmakers appeared on track for weekend work, including potential Sunday votes.  

A shortfall in transit funding in the original agreement led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Environment and Public Works ranking member Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., put the deal at risk early, though 62 senators ultimately voted Wednesday to limit debate on advancing to the vehicle for the bill.  

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on the Banking panel responsible for the transit systems title, praised the resolution that will quadruple the new spending amount for mass transit.  

"We fought back an effort to shortchange American commuters who depend on public transportation to get to their jobs and contribute to the economy," Brown said in a statement. "It's critical that we provide the resources needed to keep our transit systems safe and affordable. The Banking Committee should have had an opportunity to consider this bill, and Senators must have an opportunity to offer amendments to address other areas that need improvement."  

Later in the day, two Democratic sources said the base text of the Senate's highway bill would be further revised to strike an offset related to the Hardest Hit Fund under the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program. The inclusion of that provision had drawn the ire of senators from states with particularly high levels of foreclosure.  

Further changes are possible until the Senate formally proceeds to the vehicle. That vote's expected Friday morning.  

That Brown's support comes with a serious caveat points to the next challenge for advancing the underlying six-year authorization bill with a shorter funding stream: the possibility of McConnell using procedural tools to block amendments.  

McConnell is expected to enable consideration of a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, but what happens beyond that is an open question. EPW Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who worked with Boxer to craft a bipartisan product that's the bulk of the bill on the floor, has said he wants colleagues to offer amendments.  

But the clock may work against that.  

"If we get lots of amendments that are odd amendments, you know, they may end up shutting the place down," Republican Conference Chairman John Thune said.  

The South Dakota Republican is also chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. That panel's piece of the highway bill includes safety provisions that have been among the most contentious. Democratic senators, including Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Commerce ranking member Bill Nelson of Florida have been involved in filing amendments that would adjust safety provisions.  

Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, under the rules, the next vote would occur Friday, a sign Democrats may not be eager to yield time.  

The problem is, with the end-of-the-month deadline for extending highway programs, and GOP senators including Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah pledging to use procedural tools to thwart the Export-Import Bank measure, an extended amount of time may be necessary to complete the bill.  

Cruz has already filed a series of amendments on topics ranging from opposing sanctuary cities for immigration violations to a blockade of the Obama administration's ability to lift sanctions on Iran to a measure barring federal contributions for members of Congress getting health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, among others.  

"Every one of those [amendments] is a far more pressing priority than reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, which is a quintessential example of corporate welfare and cronyism," Cruz said Thursday. "If Republican leadership means what it said when it vehemently denied that there was a corrupt deal for Trade Promotion Authority to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, then we will vote on these other pressing amendments instead of a massive giveaway of taxpayer money to a handful of giant corporations."  

Cruz's proposals are exactly the kind of nongermane amendments that could give McConnell extra incentive to keep the amendment spigot closed.  

If all time is used, and senators use their procedural options for having a full 30 hours of debate on each of three possible filibuster-breaking cloture motions, the final vote might not happen until the middle of next week. As of Thursday afternoon it was unclear that Democrats would join in sufficient numbers to support a final product.  

For the House, a six-year bill arriving in about a week could cause an issue for the August recess, too.  

Samar Khurshid contributed to this report.

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