WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday that he intends this week to pass a pending bill to rescue the nearly depleted highway trust fund and prevent the government from delaying payments to states, despite the successful efforts by two Republican senators to block passage of the bill Monday evening.
The Democrat from Nevada hopes the Bush administration will put pressure on Senate Republicans to support a pending bill that would transfer $8 billion of general funds to the highway trust fund, a spokesman for the senator said, pointing to the administration's recent announcement that it will support the bill, a turnaround from its earlier opposition. Reid wants the bill with the effective date moved up from Oct. 1, but otherwise intact, the spokesman said.
"Sen. Reid will continue to work on getting an agreement to move the bill. Absent such an agreement, I would expect Sen. Reid to once again ask consent to pass the bill," spokesman Stephen Krupin said.
In order for the Senate to vote on, and approve the measure, at least 60 members must vote for cloture, which would limit debate on the bill and block a filibuster, or Reid must obtain unanimous consent for the measure - something that can be denied by just one senator. Krupin would not say whether the bill has enough support in the Senate to stop a filibuster.
Reid had asked the Senate on Monday for unanimous consent to pass the pending highway trust fund bill, but the request was blocked by Republican Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
Gregg said he objected to using general funds to replenish the trust fund, and that he and DeMint think the bill needs amendments, though "probably no more than three" of them. DeMint wants to amend the bill to prevent earmarks, and to open offshore drilling to "lower the price of gas and get more people driving, and increase the highway trust fund in return," said DeMint's spokesman Wesley Denton.
The trust fund has relied almost entirely on gas tax revenues, but that income is dropping as American continue to drive less.
The Department of Transportation announced last week that the highway trust fund will run out of money as early as this month and urged Congress to immediately pass the bill sponsored by Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y. The House of Representatives already approved the bill, but it has been pending in the Senate since before the summer recess.
In response to the crisis, the department has also implemented a new system for reimbursing states for transportation projects through the trust fund. The payments will be slimmed-down on a weekly basis, instead of twice-daily.
"[Transportation Secretary Mary Peters] has informed me and everyone else that she is going to start doling the money out, first 80% and then, as I understand what she said to me, it will be 50%, and pretty soon nothing," Reid said in his floor remarks on Monday.
Transportation groups, state officials, and members of Congress from both parties have aggressively pushed for the trust fund transfer since the announcement.
"States are suspending new contract awards, halting right-of-way acquisition, and looking for ways to stop ongoing construction while maintaining public safety," said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The group said states are halting "millions of dollars" of highway funding due to the crisis.
Many states, including Gregg's home state of New Hampshire, say the DOT's decision could force delays and cancellations of construction projects.
One Republican supporter of the bill, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said Monday that he is "reaching out to all of my colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, to ensure we get this immediate crisis resolved as soon as possible."