With the Sept. 30 deadline looming for expiration of the federal law funding national highway programs, senators had not set a schedule yet for when to act on an extension, a key lawmaker said Tuesday.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who as majority whip is the second-highest senator in the Democratic leadership, told The Journal of Commerce lawmakers discussed the extension of the multi-year highway bill Tuesday, with just two weeks left before the potential shutdown of numerous construction projects around the country.
“We know we have to do it, but we don’t have a specific timetable” for bringing it to the Senate floor, Durbin said.
Although the overall program is often described as the federal highway bill for its primary focus, it includes a broad range of freight infrastructure, including rail intermodal and port access projects, and is the nation’s main measure to develop coordinated transportation policies.
Although the previous law runs out this month and a six-year replacement bill has been working through the House of Representatives, President Obama asked Congress to delay work on it for 18 months to give the administration a chance to plan its long-term transportation policies.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., first wanted to push through his six-year bill now, but has since indicated he could settle for a short-term extension to early next year. Freight industry groups say they want a short extension and then a hard push to build an integrated funding plan.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., pushed an 18-month extension bill through the Environment and Public Works Committee that she chairs. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved it as well.
The Senate appeared focused on an 18-month plan. “I agree with Sen. Boxer; it should be longer rather than shorter,” Durbin said.
Asked if there is consensus in the Senate about how long to extend the expiring programs,
Sen. John Thune, S. D., ranking Republican on the surface transportation panel of the Commerce Committee, said an 18-month extension “would be fine by me.”
That would push the politically tough decisions on how to raise perhaps $500 billion, and a potential vote on a gas tax increase, past the next mid-term elections.
“From the highway bill standpoint there’s some value, I think, in trying to get this thing at least past the next election,” said Thune. “Because once you get into the political year, next year, I think it’s more complicated to do anything of major consequence. So if we end up having to write a bill next year, that could be really challenging.”
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