Senate highway bill ready for Wednesday markup

$303.5 billion measure represents a 34 percent increase in highway funding

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., said the bill "invests in our nation’s transportation infrastructure at a historic high level." (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., said the bill "invests in our nation’s transportation infrastructure at a historic high level." (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 24, 2021 at 8:30am

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has released a bipartisan, $303.5 billion highway bill and will mark it up Wednesday.

The measure, released Saturday, is the highway title of a broader surface transportation reauthorization bill. It would fund highways, roads and bridges, and does not address rail or transit, which are respectively under the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Nor does it address how to pay for the bill; that’s the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee.

Still, it marks progress on the highway reauthorization that Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the top Republican on Environment and Public Works, calls an “anchor” of infrastructure.

[White House, Republicans remain far apart on infrastructure]

Capito, who has led Senate Republicans in trying to strike a deal with President Joe Biden on a broader infrastructure package, said Saturday the highway measure’s “critical investments will help to provide economic opportunities now and for future generations.”

Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., said the highway legislation “invests in our nation’s transportation infrastructure at a historic high level, and in doing so, helps create jobs, curbs our carbon emissions, and expands opportunities for the American people.” In a statement, he called the measure “a vital foundation for President Biden’s American Jobs Plan.”

[Carper sets ‘aggressive’ timeline for marking up Senate highway bill]

The legislation would represent a 34 percent increase in highway spending compared with the last surface transportation reauthorization to pass Congress, in 2015. That authorization expired last September and was extended through Sept. 30 of this year.

In the House, the highway bill markup is still further out, with Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., simply saying it will happen “soon.” That bill has $14.9 billion in earmarks; part of the delay is that committee staff must evaluate those before moving forward with a markup.

The release of the Senate bill marks a moment of bipartisan comity as the White House and Senate Republicans remain at an impasse over the scope and cost of Biden’s broader infrastructure plan, which includes projects such as expanded broadband access and electric grid upgrades that go beyond the surface transportation legislation.

Senate Republicans responded to Biden’s initial $2.25 trillion plan with a $568 billion counteroffer. On Friday, the White House responded to that offer with a $1.7 trillion proposal, which Republicans still said was too costly.

Speaking Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Democrats may have to enact Biden’s plan through the procedure known as reconciliation if Republicans don’t negotiate with “seriousness.” That procedure would allow the bill to avoid a filibuster and pass with a simple majority vote.

“We would like bipartisanship, but I don’t think we have a seriousness on the part of the Republican leadership to address the major crises facing this country,” Sanders said. “If they’re not coming forward, we’ve got to go forward alone.”

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who has participated in negotiations with administration officials over broad infrastructure proposals, said the parties’ differences are not just about money.

“Our biggest gap is not the money,” Blunt said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Our biggest gap is defining what infrastructure is.”

He added, “I do think we’ve got about a week or 10 days to decide if we can work together on this or not.”

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David Lerman contributed to this report.