But there’s also a downside to a freewheeling amendment debate.
“There are amendments that are improvements, there are several amendments that could be very problematic,” said Rep. Pete DeFazio, ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, before the final rule was out. “It concerns me, but that’s the way the House should work.”
As to whether the amendment debate might push the House bill too far away from the Senate’s, DeFazio simply said “that’s why you have a conference.”
The House essentially picked up a bill passed by the Senate in July, but swapped out the policy provisions for its own. Lobbyists and members say the policy language is close enough that differences could likely be hashed out in a conference.
The bill requires an additional $16 billion per year to supplement the Highway Trust Fund and keep spending at current levels. The pay-fors on the House bill remained the same as the Senate’s, a collection of various offsets that would fund the bill for just three years, rather than the full six years.
Shuster said Monday that he hoped the pay-fors wouldn’t change, to make it easier to get to conference. Traditionally the House funding language has come from the House Ways and Means Committee, so having no independent measure from that committee puts the House in uncharted waters.
Then there’s the schedule to consider. Congress has only extended the Highway Trust Fund until November 20, and the Department of Transportation has cautioned that anything beyond that could plunge the transportation sector into chaos.
Around that date, DOT projects that the balance of the trust fund—fed by the dwindling receipts from the federal gas tax—dips below the “prudent cash balance level” of $4 billion, at which point the DOT may have to start slowing reimbursements to states.
The balance will rise again at the beginning of December, but will begin to see-saw around that limit before going into the red in the spring. That—plus a crowded post-Thanksgiving agenda—has added more urgency to the push to hammer out an agreement and pass a bill out of both chambers in a few weeks.
That’s why some members are so determined to keep the most controversial amendments off of the bill. Shuster, leading Republicans on the floor, urged members to stay away from more troublesome amendments, like one from Rep. Reid Ribble that would let states raise the weight limit for trucks allowed on highways.
Trucking groups say that the proposal would mean fewer trucks on the road with more productivity, but safety groups have warned that heavier trucks would pose a greater threat (the Department of Transportation has also said that there’s not enough data to recommend a change). The amendment failed in a 187-236 vote Monday night, clearing one major potential hurdle.