Politics

Despite Reid's Threat, GOP Won't Prioritize Highway Bill Over International Trade

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 21: Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (2nd L) (R-KY) takes questions from the media following the Senate policy luncheons at the U.S. Capitol April 21, 2015 in Washington, DC. Leaders from both parties have agreed to a compromise on a human trafficking bill, and will move to a vote on Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch soon. Also pictured are Sen. Roger Wicker (L) (R-MS), Sen. John Cornyn (R) (R-TX) and Sen. John Thune (2nd R) (R-SD). (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 21: Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (2nd L) (R-KY) takes questions from the media following the Senate policy luncheons at the U.S. Capitol April 21, 2015 in Washington, DC. Leaders from both parties have agreed to a compromise on a human trafficking bill, and will move to a vote on Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch soon. Also pictured are Sen. Roger Wicker (L) (R-MS), Sen. John Cornyn (R) (R-TX) and Sen. John Thune (2nd R) (R-SD). (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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鈥檚 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.

鈥淚 don鈥檛 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鈥檚 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鈥檛 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鈥檚 roads, bridges and mass transit. Its upcoming expiration has left many transportation projects in a state of uncertainty, Democrats say.

鈥淚 can鈥檛 imagine that the trade bill is so vitally important that it would... trump the highway bill, which expires at the end of this month,鈥 Reid said Tuesday.

Reid said that putting off the highway legislation is 鈥渦nwise and unfair.鈥

鈥淲e have our highway system, which is in deep trouble, and we鈥檙e going to extend that for a couple months?" he said. "I think that鈥檚 wrong."

In spite of Reid's threats, Hatch argued against rushing the highway legislation to the floor before addressing trade.

鈥淲e are working on the highway trust fund. [Reid] knows that,鈥 said Hatch. 鈥淪o he鈥檚 got to give me a little leeway there, and I think he will. I think he鈥檚 frustrated.鈥

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.

鈥淎 lot depends on what the president does, and we鈥檝e got to have Democrats. There鈥檚 no question," said Hatch. "Right now we think there will be enough of them to vote with us, but it鈥檚 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鈥檛 give advice.

鈥淸Obama] knows what he鈥檚 got to do. I think he鈥檚 doing a good job and talking to Democrats and telling them he鈥檚 got to have them,鈥 Hatch said. 鈥淭his is an important bill, and they should not let it go down the drain.鈥

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, voiced support for McConnell鈥檚 plan to bring up trade next.

鈥淭he 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,鈥 Thune told reporters Tuesday.

Thune said he expects the Senate to take action on highway funding 鈥渋n the next few weeks.鈥

鈥淚 think there will be something done," he said. "I鈥檓 not saying it鈥檚 going to be the solution that we are all ultimately hoping we鈥檒l 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.

鈥淎t least currently, the thinking is, in both the House and the Senate, it鈥檚 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.

鈥淲e 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: 鈥淚 don鈥檛 know the answer to that. We are talking to our members.鈥

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