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February 9, 2016

Senate Democrats Call for Quick Action on Highway Patch

Whitehouse says it would be politically detrimental for Republicans if the highway program should cease. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Whitehouse says it would be politically detrimental for Republicans if the highway program should cease. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A trio of Democratic senators called for quick action this month on agreeing to keep funds flowing to transportation projects through the end of the year as bipartisan, bicameral negotiations continue on finding a way to pay for the patch.

“We have to. It is a necessity for the economy of this country, for our infrastructure and for everything else, to come to an agreement before the trust fund runs out,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, said on a conference call.

“Our purpose today is to urge both sides to come together, to put down any partisan objection, to come to a compromise and get this done in the short term and then we can try to work on a longer term plan later,” the New York Democrat said. “To let the [highway] trust fund run out at time when we need jobs, we need the economy going, would be a disgrace.”

Congress has to come up with about $10 billion to plug the shortfall needed to fund transportation projects through the end of the year, given that the highway trust fund — the collection of gas tax receipts doled out to states to pay for surface transportation projects — is expected to run out of money this month.

And funding for transportation programs would shrink after Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. A short-term fix would give Congress a chance to work out a multi-year transportation authorization with a new funding mechanism or a bill that doesn’t provide as much aid.

Schumer and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who was also on the call, said it would be politically detrimental for Republicans if the highway program should cease. They added that only a small minority of conservatives, mostly in the House, who want to devolve the program back to the states.

“We are hoping that our Republican colleagues who understand that the federal government has to play an important role in highways and who actually understand that a highway shutdown would have a similar effect on their party as a government shutdown, resist their calls to close it,” Schumer said.

There are about 700,000 constructions jobs that would be affected if Congress fails to act.

The conference call — which also included Sen. Mark Warner and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, of transportation advocates Building America’s Future — comes as Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., held talks on a short-term patch over the Independence Day recess.

Schumer said he’s been in touch with Wyden and that he and Camp have had “have had good conversations. I think there is real desire on both sides not to let the trust fund run out.”

“What you have to do is find things that can fill the gap…that can pay for that that both side can accept,” Schumer said. “One side might say ‘do it all with revenues,’ one side might say ‘do it all with spending cuts.’ Obviously there has got to be a compromise. … Signs are looking good that we can come to that compromise.”

Schumer said he believes that once an agreement is reached between chambers and parties that Congress could move quickly to approve it.

Asked if using offsets for transportation that some Democrats have pushed to be used for an unemployment extension was under consideration, Schumer said, “I think we are looking at everything.”

But he stressed that no decision had been made yet on the offset.

“As to what specific proposal would meet both side’s OK … we are not there yet, but there is an agreement that we should try to get this done before Aug. 1,” Schumer said.

An unemployment extension remains a priority for Democrats and offsets have been used in a pending Senate bill in order to win Republican support. But it’s unclear the bill will be considered any time soon after the Senate passed a similar bill in April. The Republican-run House ignored the measure, saying it doesn’t help create jobs.

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