Congress is trying to wrap up a long-overdue transportation bill, and one good omen is that patience on Capitol Hill appears to be running out. "I just want to get it all over with," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said as final negotiations began Thursday.
Lawmakers have extended the previous highway and mass transit bill seven times because they can't agree on funding totals or how to divvy up dollars among states. But House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) told his colleagues that the current deadline, June 30, is fixed. "There will be no more extensions," he warned.
The House bill totals about $284 billion, the ceiling set by the White House. But senators balked at President Bush's veto threat and added $11 billion to their bill, increasing it to $295 billion. Many Republicans and Democrats support a larger package, to meet the nation's vast highway and transit needs, and because transportation bills are a jobs bonanza.
Negotiators appear to be on track to split the difference between the House and Senate bills, but they still must persuade Bush to sign a costlier bill. The administration continues to insist on $284 billion, say participants in the talks. Late last week, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and other administration officials leaned on negotiators to back off a higher number.
But an additional $5 billion or so would make a disproportionately significant difference, advocates say, because it could be used as a down payment of sorts for projects that could be started in the latter years of the six-year bill and be fully funded under subsequent legislation. This would result in more projects getting underway sooner. Republican lawmakers also grumble privately that just weeks ago, Congress passed an emergency military spending bill that includes billions of dollars that are not urgently needed, for example, for longer-term modernization efforts -- only to be nickel-and-dimed on a politically popular highway bill that could have meaningful economic implications.
"I think the members are a little sensitive about this," said one senior Republican aide, who is participating in the negotiations.
GOP congressional leaders remain publicly noncommittal. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) said that even though the bill has economic benefits, Congress has a duty to be fiscally responsible. And Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), said his boss would wait for negotiations to unfold, to determine whether or not a higher figure would be acceptable. "We'll wait and see what they work out," Stevenson said.
Another conflict: The House version includes $11 billion in politically popular pet projects, including parking garages, bridges and bus terminals, that lawmakers want to deliver to their districts. The Senate decided to change the way highway funds are distributed, to the greater benefit of donor states that contribute more to the Highway Trust Fund in gas taxes and other revenue than they receive back in transportation funding. Because the money would be spread more fairly, senators were not as inclined to stuff the bill with specific items.
Negotiators predicted that about half the House projects would end up in the final bill.
A CHANGE OF PACE: The Senate will consider energy legislation for the next two weeks, and it could be a novel experience, because the bill has attracted broad bipartisan support.
That's a change of pace from the bitter partisan brawl over judges that has dominated the chamber for months. It is also a switch from previous Senate energy debates, which became partisan standoffs even though energy issues usually break down along regional, as opposed to political, lines.
One area of common ground in the Senate is the tax breaks that are expected to be included in the bill. While the House version steers relief to such traditional industries as oil and gas, many of the Senate breaks will favor renewable energy sources and conservation -- big Democratic priorities. With gas prices sky-high, not a lot of senators are clamoring to give tax breaks to the oil industry. There is, however, growing bipartisan interest in increasing the nation's refining capacity, and Senate aides said the bill may attempt to address that.
With few gripes about the bill itself, Senate Democrats will focus on what they believe it omits: more drastic steps to reduce U.S. consumption of foreign oil.
"Our hope is to make the Senate energy bill better, because right now, it does little to move us towards energy independence," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
THE WEEK AHEAD: The House is scheduled to consider two fiscal 2006 appropriation bills: for Defense, and for science-State-Justice-Commerce. The Senate plans to take up the energy bill and possibly vote on the John R. Bolton nomination for ambassador to the United Nations -- if the Republicans can muster enough votes.