As Halloween deadline nears, Democrats spooked over highway law

Lawmakers have until Sunday to pass the pending bipartisan infrastructure bill or another extension

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., said because his state's gubernatorial race is so tight, passing the bipartisan bill by Virginia Election Day may make a difference. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., said because his state's gubernatorial race is so tight, passing the bipartisan bill by Virginia Election Day may make a difference. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 27, 2021 at 11:44am

The House appears increasingly unlikely to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill this week, with progressives vowing not to vote for it until they can also vote on a larger package of President Joe Biden’s domestic priorities.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Tuesday that a framework alone would not suffice in convincing members of her caucus to back the bipartisan plan, which would reauthorize surface transportation programs and include $550 billion for roads, highways, water, broadband and other built infrastructure.

“If there’s agreement in the Senate moving forward and the president has an ironclad commitment from all 50 senators, we will vote both of them out of the House,” she said, but said any vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill has to occur concurrently with the vote on the larger domestic package.

Meanwhile, the current extension of the 2015 surface transportation law expires Oct. 31, meaning lawmakers have until Sunday to pass the overall bipartisan bill or a third short-term extension of the 2015 law. 

If they don’t act, the current highway law will expire, potentially causing furloughs at the Department of Transportation and stalling some state DOT work. 

[Short-term highway bill extension brings anxiety to contractors]

Beyond that, Democrats see a second, potentially consequential impact. They worry that failure to pass the bill by next week will affect the Nov. 2 Virginia gubernatorial race between Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat and former governor, and Republican Glenn Youngkin.

“I think it has an impact — a limited impact, but an impact,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va. 

Connolly said because the gubernatorial race is so tight, passing the bipartisan bill by Nov. 2 may make a difference. Doing so, he said, “is a credential in (Democrats’) assertion that when you give us the levers of power, we use them for the public good. And if we fail in doing that, it’s just one less argument for us and one more argument against us. In a close race, that’s not helpful.” 

The Virginia election presents an argument for urgency even as it looks increasingly likely that the House will pass another short-term extension of the current law. 

Congress passed its most recent extension of the law Oct. 2 under a sword of Damocles: Lawmakers worried that if they extended the bill beyond a month, they would have to transfer money from general revenue to keep federal highway programs afloat, effectively a “bailing out” of a fund paid for through the gas tax. 

Cash on hand

But that urgency abated last week when the Federal Highway Administration assured congressional offices that the Highway Account was higher than initially expected. The department projects the gas-tax-funded highway account to end the calendar year with roughly $9.4 billion. 

“A General Fund transfer may not be necessary through the end of the calendar year,” the FHWA wrote in guidance to Congress.

Still, lawmakers are hesitant to pass a short-term extension, saying they’d prefer instead to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate approved Aug. 10. That bill includes a full five-year reauthorization of surface transportation programs.

“Our focus is to pass in the House the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “That takes care of the funding for roads, highways and bridges for the next five years. And right now that’s where we’re putting our energy.”

Progressives have said they will not pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill until they can vote on the larger bill. That legislation has been held up in the Senate, where Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are working to strike a deal with Biden and fellow Democrats on a smaller package. All 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus must support the larger bill for it to pass under budget reconciliation rules, due to Republican opposition .

But House progressives reiterated Tuesday that they want to see all 50 Democratic senators agree on a reconciliation package, approved by Biden, before they’ll vote on the infrastructure package.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a vote in the Senate, but does mean the House will have to take up both packages at the same time, said Jayapal.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a member of the progressive caucus, said he too wants “full confidence” that whatever they vote on in the House will be supported by all 50 Democrats in the Senate.

He said he doubted the infrastructure bill’s passage would have an impact on the Virginia gubernatorial race. 

“I don’t think a voter deciding state politics in Virginia is deciding whether or not we’re doing something on a certain day that you guys are reporting,” he said. “It’s three-dimensional chess in a world that largely plays checkers.” 

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.