A very public feud over the highway funding reauthorization is set to move to a more private venue, as 47 members of a conference committee prepare to hammer out a compromise on divisive issues in the House and Senate bills.
Congressional leaders unveiled their conference rosters last week. They named 33 House members and 14 senators to work on the compromise between the two-year, $109 billion bill produced by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and a House Republican framework based on a five-year, $260 billion bill sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman John Mica, R-Fla.
Conferees will begin formal meetings May 8, but will be having informal discussions before that on the two bills, only one of which contains provisions that would ease restrictions on municipal bonds.
The conferees include the bill sponsors and important members from the committees of jurisdiction. Boxer and Inhofe will both represent the Senate, which struck the language of a proposed 90-day extension to current surface transportation funding passed by the House and substituted the language of the Senate bill.
Also representing the Senate will be Max Baucus, D-Mont., head of the Finance Committee and the author of bond-related and other revenue provisions in the Senate bill, as well as top finance committee Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Mica got the nod to participate as a conferee from House leaders who showed some reluctance after his bill became controversial and was opposed by market participants in February. Another conferee is Bill Schuster, R-Pa., rumored to have been designated by House leaders to replace Mica as the driver on the GOP’s highway bill push. Nick Rahall of West Virginia also got an invite as the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In all, the Senate will send eight Democrats and six Republicans, while the House delegation features 20 Republicans and 13 Democrats.
There are some deep divides between the two sides, as emphasized in a comprehensive review of the legislation produced last week by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The Highway Trust Fund, fueled by gas taxes and responsible for funding about 80% of mass transit programs in the United States, appears headed for insolvency this year.
The Senate bill seeks to bridge that funding gap, expected to be about $8 billion per year, by reducing some tax breaks and redirecting money originally intended to combat groundwater contamination.
House Republicans prefer to create revenue through leases of federal land to oil producers. They also want to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project President Obama has suggested he might veto. Muni advocates want Senate leaders to push for provisions in the Senate bill that would temporarily exempt private-activity bonds from the alternative minimum tax and increase the limit for bank-qualified bonds to $30 million from $10 million.
But both proposals share a commitment to streamlining the federal bureaucracy and vastly increasing federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loans, said American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials executive director John Horsley. Both would authorize $1 billion per year for TIFIA, a 10-fold increase. A new bill would give state departments of transportation the confidence to execute bond deals and otherwise finance long-term projects, secure in the knowledge of how much help they could expect from federal sources, according to Horsley. “What states need is certainty,” he said. “This is a major breakthrough with respect to where we’ve been the last year and a half.”
A bill produced in conference committee would need to win approval in both chambers in order to reach Obama’s desk and become law.