The Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion bipartisan transportation bill in a 74-22 vote Wednesday, handing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) significant bragging rights in the race to pass election-year job-creation legislation. Now all eyes turn to the House of Representatives and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has struggled to bring his own caucus to terms on a highway bill.
Reid said his chamber's bill, cosponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), would help fix 70,000 failing bridges and save or create 2.8 million jobs.
"Really, I have to say that Senator Inhofe and I and our staffs really became close family as we worked through this. And I am so moved at the way we were able to come together, all of us," Boxer said on the Senate floor just before the bill's passage. "Let's get the House to pass our bill. This is a jobs bill."
Inhofe returned the compliment. "Yes, she and I are probably at the opposite extremes," Inhofe said. But, he added, "I've always said that conservatives should be big in two areas: national defense and infrastructure."
The Senate bill was one of few pieces of major legislation in recent memory to secure broad bipartisan support. The current transportation bill expires on March 31, which means that Congressional leaders are racing against time to get a new bill passed and prevent thousand of construction jobs from being put on hold.
The Senate vote came after weeks of intense backroom discussion over how many amendments Senate Republicans could bring up, and failed attempts by Republicans to attach approval for the Keystone XL pipeline to the bill, but the final votes on Tuesday and Wednesday were largely drama-free. One surprising development was the passage on a 50-47 vote Tuesday of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that would make it much more difficult to privatize existing highways and turn them into toll roads.
Truckers and the AAA have strongly opposed creating more toll roads. On the Senate floor, Bingaman said his amendment "would simply remove these privatized toll roads from consideration when we allocate highway funds."
Privatization watchdogs were enthusiastic. "I think it's a defeat for Wall Street interests that have counted on Congress being asleep at the wheel when it comes to their subsides for private projects," said Phineas Baxandall, federal tax and budget policy analyst at the consumer group U.S. PIRG. He credited rural Republicans and truckers for the amendment's narrow passage.
Another provision that was included in the bill, however, vastly expanded a federal loan program for new transportation projects that often involves so-called "public-private partnerships." Such arrangements often involve outsourcing the management of public infrastructure to Wall Street-backed private companies.
The Senate bill keeps transportation spending steady despite deficit concerns and rapidly dwindling gas tax revenues, which have traditionally filled the Highway Trust Fund, by piecing together a patchwork of unrelated taxes. And, while far from promoting sweeping changes for mass transit, the bill keeps public transportation funding level.
Senate conservatives complained that the bill spends down the Highway Trust Fund and relies on transfers from the general fund, instead of gas tax revenues alone, to pay for highways. They have also long argued that bicycle and pedestrian paths should not rely on drivers' gas taxes for funding.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) had argued that the federal transportation program be dismantled, spending reduced to gas tax revenue levels, and decision-making be devolved to the states. "Taxpayers have already bailed out the federal highway trust fund with $35 billion, and this highway bill would force them to provide another $13 billion bailout," he said in a statement. "We’ve got to stop the bipartisan spending spree and the federal government has to start letting go of programs that can be done better, faster, and less expensively at the state level."
DeMint's amendment to turn the Highway Trust Fund over to the states failed on a 30-67 vote Tuesday.
House members are currently back in their districts, but Boehner and his top lieutenants were quietly trying to see how many of their fellow House Republicans they could wrangle into supporting a transportation bill. One option under discussion was simply passing the bipartisan Senate bill, which would represent a notable defeat for Boehner's attempt to tie transportation funding to offshore drilling on the premise that the combination would create jobs.
With just 17 days until the expiration of the current transportation bill, Boehner is under major pressure to find some way to pass a bill. Whatever happens in the House, the passage of a short-term extension of the current bill may be necessary to create additional time for both chambers to agree on a compromise.
Boehner has suggested he might just take up the Senate bill, and Boxer urged him to do so.
"When you have a bill that gets 74 votes at a time when everything is so contentious ... they ought to take a serious look at taking this bill up and passing it," she said. "The House is away this week. When they come back, they are staring at two weeks of a timeframe. Why do they want to reinvent the wheel?"
The White House sounded a similar note in a statement, saying that the administration was "pleased that Senators have continued the tradition of working across the aisle to pass a bill [...] We are hopeful that the House will move swiftly and in similarly bipartisan fashion to do the same."
Michael McAuliff contributed reporting.