TRANSPORTATION

Key senators rally behind 6-month highway extension

A bipartisan group of key senators relented yesterday on their efforts to punt the next multiyear highway and transit bill into 2011 and instead called for a shorter, six-month extension that would continue current federal spending until June 2010.

In a letter, seven committee leaders and ranking members asked Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to limit debate on the proposal in order to circumvent a handful of senators that have previously blocked efforts to speed passage of highway extensions.

"On a bipartisan basis, we have decided to move forward with a 6-month extension," wrote the group, which includes Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "Unfortunately, a small number of Senators continue to object and will not allow an extension to be considered by the Senate without a cloture vote."

The current multiyear spending law -- which provides the bulk of federal funding for the nation's highways and transit systems -- was set to expire at the end of September, but federal spending has continued under a pair of stopgap measures that include funding for a number of other federal programs. The current continuing resolution is set to expire Dec. 18, and lawmakers will need to come to some type of an agreement on transportation spending before then.

Also signing the letter were: Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.); Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas); and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

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For much of the summer, the group had heeded a White House call to extend current highway and transit spending until March 2011. But while that effort cleared the three panels with primary jurisdiction over the bill -- EPW, Banking and Commerce -- it was ultimately derailed by House Democrats who are holding out hope that they can pass a multiyear bill before the end of this year.

Last month, with the first stopgap funding measure about to expire, Boxer and Inhofe temporarily relented on their 18-month push in favor of a six-month extension but were unable to find the necessary bipartisan support to speed the effort through the Senate. Even if they had, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) would have likely blocked the effort, as he has done with any extension beyond the end of 2009.

Oberstar has remained steadfast in his efforts to push forward with his committee's six-year, $500 billion proposal, but plenty of work remains to be done before Congress could pass it. Lawmakers have yet to find a way to pay for the increased federal investment, and the Senate has yet to craft its version of the legislation.

The EPW Committee is scheduled to meet with Transportation Department officials this afternoon to discuss the federal transportation programs, but the briefing represents the first time the committee has formally taken up the issue since a hearing in late June, when Boxer and Inhofe first offered their public support for the White House's 18-month proposal.

In their letter, the seven senators argued that any additional short-term extensions would be another blow to the already ailing construction industry because many state officials are unlikely to proceed with longer-term projects when they are not assured of federal reimbursement.

"One of the best ways to spur job creation and economic recovery is through infrastructure investment," they wrote. "That is why a longer term extension of the surface transportation program is so important to maintaining our nation's vital bridges, roads, public transportation and other related infrastructure, restoring our economy and creating good jobs for American workers."

Many lawmakers that hope to see faster action on the next multiyear bill have also pointed to the economic benefits of transportation investment as a reason lawmakers should remain focused on a full bill and not a large extension.

Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, the chamber's No. 2 Democrat, predicted late last month that transportation would likely take center stage in Congress as early as January and floated the idea of "front loading" the next bill in order to emphasize near-term job creation.

Likewise, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) -- the sole EPW Committee member to vote against the 18-month extension this summer -- sent a letter to the White House on Friday urging the president to throw his support behind passing a full highway bill this upcoming spring.

"I believe that a transportation reauthorization bill is critical to job creation, improving the nation's transportation infrastructure, and reducing our carbon footprint," Voinovich wrote. "A transportation reauthorization bill would be a three-fer."

Click here to read the senators' letter.

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