POLITICS

Senate Revs Up Debate On Highway Bill, Roadblocks Lie Ahead

WASHINGTON -- After some initial stalling, the Senate on Wednesday kicked off debate on a multiyear highway bill that would fund the nation's ailing transit system for three years.  

The upper chamber voted 62-36 in a second procedural vote to move a multiyear highway deal crafted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to the Senate floor for debate after the first try backfired.

While hailed as a "breakthrough" deal by Boxer, a number of her Democratic colleagues voiced deep concerns with the legislation, specifically the way in which negotiators decided to scrape together money for the extension of the Highway Trust Fund.

Boxer and McConnell could be seen whipping on the floor of the Senate Wednesday as the votes were tallied on the procedural hurdle. Democrats split over the bill. The divide was reflected in the leadership, as Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) voted to advance the bill with Boxer, but Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not. 

Notably, three of the four Republican senators running for president defied party leadership -- Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) -- and voted against moving the bill forward.

The fund, which pays for the nation's roads, bridges and highways and expires on July 31, has been plagued by a cycle of short patches, making it difficult for local officials to plan long-term transportation projects that would improve the infrastructure in their states. The legislation before the Senate would authorize spending levels for the highway fund for six years, but only shores up money for three of those years.

To pay for three years of cash flow to the fund, senators scraped together sources from a variety of pots, a majority of which have little to do with transportation. The money is compiled from 16 different provisions that include unspent funds from a Treasury Department program aimed at helping homeowners, as well as cuts in Social Security benefits to "fugitive felons." The largest chunk -- $16.3 billion -- comes from a reduction in a Federal Reserve bank subsidy. 

Those offsets have raised some eyebrows among a sizable number of Senate Democratic caucus members, and ire from House Democrats and a handful of Republicans, who will also need to sign off on the bill if Congress wants to prevent a lapse in funding. That lapse would cause construction on transportation projects across the country to grind to a halt. 

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, stressed the need to pass the multiyear bill after it advanced. 

"Since 2009, Congress has passed 33 short-term patches," Inhofe said. "As a result, our nation has slowed building projects and stopped modernizing our surface transportation system. Bridges continue to deteriorate; traffic congestion continues to amass; and friction cost on household goods continue to rise."
 
Still, Democrats aren't happy with the offsets. 
 
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he has a whole host of "objections" to money pots the bill pulls from, and considers the package a "safety disaster."
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