WASHINGTON -- With a little over one week left before funding for the nation's transportation infrastructure dries up, the Senate has reached a deal on a multiyear bill, parting ways with the House. However, the bill immediately hit some bumps.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced the deal, which he had been negotiating with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), on Tuesday, saying it "provides three years of guaranteed funding" for the Highway Trust Fund.
"I'm happy to announce Sen. Boxer and I have an agreement on a multiyear highway bill," McConnell said on the Senate floor.
The bill would authorize spending levels for the troubled fund for six years, but provide funding for only three of those years -- about $45 billion in new money for the fund.
But Democrats succeeded in blocking the procedural motion to proceed to the bill 41-56 late Tuesday afternoon. Joining Democrats in voting against the motion were 11 Republicans, including McConnell -- a move that allows the majority leader to bring up the motion again.
After the failed vote, McConnell threatened weekend work to get the bill across the finish line before the August recess.
"I'm hopeful that by tomorrow we will have cloture on the bill," McConnell said. "I know I haven't threatened a Saturday session all year, but there will be a Saturday session, and probably Sunday as well."
McConnell had said early Tuesday that both parties would reveal the details of the bill during their weekly party lunches. But the text of the bill wasn't released until later Tuesday afternoon, leaving Democrats skeptical heading into an afternoon procedural vote to advance the bill. A senior Democratic aide fumed that the 1,030-page bill is longer than the Affordable Care Act, and was shared with lawmakers barely 20 minutes before the procedural vote.
Boxer called the deal, which comes 10 days before the federal funding runs out, a "breakthrough."
“Orally I’ve reached an agreement with McConnell and I’m very excited about it but we have to see the pay-fors,” Boxer told reporters after the party lunches.
According to the bill text released later Tuesday, the money that will be funneled into the fund if the bill passes would come from a variety of pots, ranging from current extensions to Transportation Security Administration security fees, which would contribute $3.5 billion, to requiring the Energy secretary to draw down and sell 101 million barrels of crude oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve through 2025, which would offset $9 billion.
By far, the largest amount of money that would go into the fund would come from the financial sector. The bill would cut from 6 percent to 1.5 percent the interest rate dividend the Federal Reserve pays to banks for holding stock in the Fed, hitting a wide range of banks and pumping $16.3 billion into the nation's highways, roads and bridges.
Another $2.3 billion offset, would revise the Social Security Act to limit benefits given to so-called "fugitives" who have outstanding warrants for their arrest. It would include a safeguard allowing the Social Security commissioner to dole out payments to individuals for "good cause."
Boxer, the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, mentioned earlier Tuesday that some of the money would come from those Social Security cuts. She also noted another measure that would prevent Social Security Disability Insurance recipients from simultaneously collecting unemployment insurance.
Asked before the bill text was released if she would support the offsets, Boxer said she would as long as the terms she worked out with McConnell were in the final text of the bill.
“Only if it’s cut back to protect senior citizens,” Boxer said, quickly adding a moment later that “it’s been cut back to protect the vulnerable people so I feel good about it.”
Despite the apparent bipartisanship between McConnell and Boxer, Democratic leaders left their weekly caucus meeting miffed.
The fate of the Senate bill appeared all but certain as Tuesday’s cloture vote neared. As of mid-afternoon, Democrats still had not seen the full legislation, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters that, while he favors a long-term highway bill, he would vote against a procedural motion to begin consideration of the measure later Tuesday.
"We have a few very minimal rules that we follow. One is we should actually be able to see the bill and read it and discuss it before we're asked to vote on it," Reid said.
He also said Democrats were informed that there would be no amendments on the bill -- a prospect to which he also objected, saying that being told to "take it or leave it" is "not fair to us, it's not fair to the American people."
Reid added Democrats would “not favorably” vote on the cloture motion, which would further stall the bill’s progress.
Complicating matters further, the Senate bill doesn’t line up with the one passed by the House last week. The House passed a five-month extension of funding, which would expire on Dec. 18. To stave off a lapse in funds, the House will either need to take up the Senate bill, or both chambers will have to go to conference.
Asked how Senate leaders intended to bridge the gap between their measure and the House's before the House recesses at the end of the month, McConnell spoke with optimism.
“What we hope is that the multiyear paid-for highway bill that we've been discussing that we hope to get out of the Senate in the next week or so will be attractive to the House of Representatives," McConnell said at his weekly news conference. "I hope they'll consider it and pass it."
The deal revealed Tuesday was reached after many late nights, and came together just hours before McConnell announced it, said Sen. Jim Inhofe (Okla.), one of the top Republicans involved in negotiations. He said full funding for six years should be able to be scraped together within a year.
Asked why one offset that would have raised over $30 billion in savings by cutting the rate of return on a retirement program for federal employees, known as the G-fund, was scrapped, Inhofe said Boxer was adamantly opposed to it.
"Barbara was very much opposed to that," Inhofe said, "because of a misunderstanding that people with the G-funds would have thought they were going to be losing retirement benefits. When in fact they could always take what is in there now and put it in the C-fund or the rest of them. But she said it was a deal-breaker."
Hinting at the tensions, and large gap Republicans and Democrats needed to close to come up with a multiyear bill, Inhofe joked that the deal was reached "10 minutes ago."
In fact, he said, Boxer's and McConnell's staffs worked into the morning over "contentious" offsets and details that needed to be worked out.
Since 2009 the highway fund has been in a perpetual cycle of short-term patches, creating uncertainty for states trying to fund larger projects and keep up maintenance on the nation's roads, highways and bridges.
This post has been updated with more details about the bill and its fate, as well as quotes from Sen. Jim Inhofe.
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