A Make-or-Break Week for Transportation Begins on the Hill

After weeks of uncertainty and tension, the congressional impasse over long-term transportation funding is headed for resolution this week — but the reprieve may be temporary.

0131mnfederal_dd_graphic_oberstar.jpgA decisive week lies ahead for House transport chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN). (Photo: Capitol Chatter)

When we last left House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), he was calling for a $3 billion fix for the nation’s highway trust fund. That low number is intended to keep the pressure on the White House to reconsider its push for upwards of $20 billion to postpone an overhaul of national transport policy until early 2011.

Oberstar has claimed a powerful ally in Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who reiterated her support for a six-year transportation bill during her weekly press briefing on Thursday. But Pelosi sought to downplay any hint of a rift with the Senate, which has already acted on the Obama administration’s 18-month stopgap plan.

"Oh, eventually we will have a transportation bill," Pelosi said. "It is
just a question if we take it in a smaller dose or a bigger dose."

The question is a huge one to both transportation reform advocates, who are hoping for a new bill that boosts transit funding and state-level accountability, and business groups that are counting on long-term legislation to help boost their fiscal health during an economic recession.

And it’s a question that may be answered within days. The House is set to leave for its month-long August recess by the weekend, making the fate of the highway trust fund a suddenly high priority.

The Senate plans to remain in Washington until around August 7, but its transportation funding plan is moving forward quickly. On Thursday afternoon, the Banking Committee became the last panel in the upper chamber of Congress to sign off on the White House’s 18-month postponement.

Even as that was occurring, however, Banking chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) said he would prefer a six-month extension of the existing transportation law.

As the subscription-only CQ publication first reported, Dodd declared, "I’m
not ready to concede we cannot move ahead on a transportation bill
early next year." He also vowed to start working on new legislation "if
the opportunity presents itself," echoing a statement recently made by Senate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

So what will the outcome be after this make-or-break week for transportation policy? Many scenarios could play out, but three are most likely:

a) The Senate and White House muscle their way to victory, persuading Pelosi and other House leaders to push through an 18-month extension over the objections of Oberstar and his allies.

b) Oberstar and the House somehow win the day, forcing the Senate’s hand by refusing to budge on the $3 billion patch. The fight then moves to September, giving the House chairman little time to solve the tricky problem of generating revenue for a broad new transportation bill.

c) A larger fix for the trust fund passes through both chambers of Congress — likely in the neighborhood of $7 billion, which the U.S. DOT projects is necessary to keep road projects funded until the end of September.

The fight over long-term transportation would still keep going until after Labor Day, but Oberstar’s failure to secure a smaller patch would deny him sorely needed urgency.

Streetsblog Capitol Hill’s money is on c), but anything can happen this week. Keep watching closely.