New Highway Bill Hits a Roadblock

Democrats voted against advancing McConnell's transportation blueprint because they didn't have enough time to read it, and some Republicans dislike the details.

Senate Democrats threw a wrench in the Senate's push for a long-term transportation bill Tuesday, joining some Republicans in voting against a procedural measure to move to the bill because they said they had not been given enough time to read it.

Less than two hours before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and top negotiators unveiled the major, multiyear plan to fund the country's highway system, hoping to put behind them the memories of recent years in which Congress defaulted dozens of times to pass short-term, universally disliked patches.

But even before the senators released the bill, some Republicans lamented the way it was financed, while Democrats protested that a vote to advance it Tuesday failed to provide enough time to carefully look it over. Minority Whip Dick Durbin said it'd be "reasonable" for them to have at least a day. "They want us to vote in two hours on a bill we haven't seen, we haven't read, they haven't made public," added Sen. Chuck Schumer in a press conference. "We need time to look over alternative ideas before we move forward."

Democrats came through on their promise Tuesday, joining some Republican critics in voting against a cloture motion to proceed to the bill. The motion failed 41-56.

Complicating matters further is timing: Congress has only until the end of the month to pay and extend the Highway Trust Fund, which reimburses states for federal transportation projects, and the Senate and House disagree on the path forward. McConnell said after the vote that he hoped to get cloture on the bill by Wednesday and that the Senate would "most definitely" be in session this weekend to continue working on it.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid responded on the floor that the weekend session was worth a try, but that "we're assuming a lot that the House is going to take this bill."

The Senate's bill would reauthorize the fund for six years while only paying for it for three. Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune told National Journal that Congress will "obviously" have to come up with other proposals in three years, but hopes that by then the chambers will be "in a better position to do that." Sen. James Inhofe, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and lead Republican on the bill, said that a mechanism in the bill would cut off expenditures if no more funding was found before the fourth year, a way to put pressure on lawmakers to get a long-term deal.

The Highway Trust Fund is primarily funded through an 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax that hasn't been raised since 1993. Despite more fuel-efficient vehicles and the fund consistently threatening to run dry, raising the tax was a nonstarter for Republicans and some Democrats. A major pay-for that Senate Republicans considered—tweaking federal-government-retirement plans—wasn't approved by Sen. Barbara Boxer, the top Democratic negotiator, according to Inhofe. "She said that's just a deal killer," he said.

Speaking on the floor, Inhofe said that the highway bill would be open for amendments, but urged members to get them in quickly. The highway bill is expected to be packed with unrelated amendments; a spokesperson for Sen. Ted Cruz said he intends to introduce amendments to defund Planned Parenthood and repeal Obamacare, and he will filibuster an expected amendment that would reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which lost its charter to back new loans last month over largely conservative opposition.

"I'm not encouraging amendments, but I'm not discouraging them," Inhofe said. Asked if attaching something like the Ex-Im Bank would be a death knell for the bill, Inhofe said he wasn't worried.

"This is the most popular legislation in America today," Inhofe said. "This thing's going to pass and the president's going to sign it."

But there also are early signs that GOP senators could oppose the bill over the way it's financed. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said Tuesday that he is against the largest pay-for, a $16.3 billion proposal derived from cutting dividends paid by the Federal Reserve to large banks. "You're going to weaken the banking system," Shelby said. "I oppose that."

Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, opposes the bill because the pay-fors do not add up to a recurring funding source for the long-term needs of transportation funding. When asked if he was happy with the funding sources, he said, "I don't want to make life miserable here for others, but no, absolutely not."

"To take 10 years worth of pay-fors to fund three years is not in the spirit of what a trust fund is all about," Corker added. "So I can't support it, but I understand obviously others will, and I am obviously disappointed at our unwillingness to actually solve these fiscal problems and put them behind us. But that's obviously not what's going to happen."

The bill is funded from a hodgepodge of sources. Along with the Federal Reserve provision, another $9 billion would come from a drawdown and sale of excess oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a funding source that's also been eyed for other cash-needy programs.

The bill also generates $1.9 billion from extending mortgage lenders' guarantee fees that were set to drop, $4 billion by indexing customs fees to inflation, and $3.5 billion by changing where fees from the Transportation Security Administration go, among others. The bill also gets money through changes to the estate tax, mortgage-lending requirements, and by rescinding unused funds from the stimulus package.

Also expected to be a source of trouble is the safety language, which Democrats uniformly voted against in a Commerce Committee markup last week and was identified by Reid as a deal-breaker for the party. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat on the Commerce Committee, said that he had been told there were tweaks made to the safety provisions, but that he's "not satisfied that they reflect real change."

"The old saying 'the devil's in the details' really applies here,' Blumenthal said, adding that he has a number of amendments that he planned to bring up to the bill. Among them, he said, would be a tightening of rail and auto safety and a provision that would apply criminal penalties if it was shown that automakers had covered up a safety problem.

Even if the Senate can pass its bill, it will run into issues with the House, which recently passed a slim five-month extension to give Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan a chance to work out a larger deal on tax reform that would pay for long-term highway funding. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy stood by his chamber's bill Tuesday in a meeting with reporters.

"I know it's characterized as a long term bill that's only paid for short-term," McCarthy said. "It's always our intention to get to a long-term bill. That's why the House passed one out to December with the full intention of having a long-term bill that is actually paid for. "¦ I still stand behind what the House is doing. I think that's a better long-term plan."

This article has been updated.