WASHINGTON -- Top Senate Republicans made it clear Tuesday that in spite of threats from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), they don't intend to address a bill on the nation’s transportation infrastructure -- at least not before they move a controversial trade deal to the floor.
Reid vowed on Monday to block legislation, supported by both Republicans and the White House, that would grant President Barack Obama fast-track authority to push international trade deals through Congress. Reid argued that the Senate first needs to address a key highway bill, as well as a package of reforms to a surveillance policy set to expire soon.
“I don’t know what the Democrats will do," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, when asked if proponents of the trade bill have the 60 votes needed to break Reid’s filibuster threat. "All I can [say] is that if they want the highway bill, trust me, we are going to get it for them. But you don’t do that overnight, and the only way you can do it overnight is to do it a sloppy dumb way. And I think Senator Reid knows that."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reiterated Tuesday that after the Senate wraps up business on Iran legislation, it will move on to trade promotion authority (TPA). After that, McConnell said, he will bring up an extension for the Highway Trust Fund before Congress leaves for its Memorial Day recess.
Republicans are evidently divided on how to approach an extension for the federal highway fund, which expires on May 31. The fund pays for the nation’s roads, bridges and mass transit. Its upcoming expiration has left many transportation projects in a state of uncertainty, Democrats say.
“I can’t imagine that the trade bill is so vitally important that it would... trump the highway bill, which expires at the end of this month,” Reid said Tuesday.
Reid said that putting off the highway legislation is “unwise and unfair.”
“We have our highway system, which is in deep trouble, and we’re going to extend that for a couple months?" he said. "I think that’s wrong."
In spite of Reid's threats, Hatch argued against rushing the highway legislation to the floor before addressing trade.
“We are working on the highway trust fund. [Reid] knows that,” said Hatch. “So he’s got to give me a little leeway there, and I think he will. I think he’s frustrated.”
Hatch added that getting the necessary votes to pass fast-track authority will hinge on the White House's efforts to help Republicans woo Democrats.
“A lot depends on what the president does, and we’ve got to have Democrats. There’s no question," said Hatch. "Right now we think there will be enough of them to vote with us, but it’s up to the president."
When asked whether Obama should try to talk Reid out of blocking trade for the sake of the highway fund, Hatch said he wouldn’t give advice.
“[Obama] knows what he’s got to do. I think he’s doing a good job and talking to Democrats and telling them he’s got to have them,” Hatch said. “This is an important bill, and they should not let it go down the drain.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, voiced support for McConnell’s plan to bring up trade next.
“The leader is going to set the agenda here. I heard what [Reid] said, but we are going to TPA, and hopefully the Democrats that are for TPA will work with us not only to get on the bill, but ultimately to get it across the floor,” Thune told reporters Tuesday.
Thune said he expects the Senate to take action on highway funding “in the next few weeks.”
“I think there will be something done," he said. "I’m not saying it’s going to be the solution that we are all ultimately hoping we’ll have."
Republicans are currently in talks on whether to pursue a long-term, six-year extension of the highway fund, or a short-term patch that will last through the end of the fiscal year.
“At least currently, the thinking is, in both the House and the Senate, it’s going to be very hard to get a multi-year bill done," said Thune. "Therefore, doing an extension to the end of the year syncs up with some other things we have to do at the end of the year, and maybe that will be an opportunity to do a longer-term bill."
Thune said no final decisions have been made.
Senate Democrats did not appear discouraged Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that party leaders are currently talking to Democrats about mounting a push to block trade in favor of highway funding, as Reid indicated.
“We are talking to our members on that," said Durbin. "Of course, it comes down to 10 to 12 Democrats voting for fast-track. Those are the key votes."
Asked if he thought Democrats could win the procedural game of chess, Durbin said: “I don’t know the answer to that. We are talking to our members.”