Newspaper article Roll Call

Politics, Not Policy, Shape Bridge over Highway Cliff

Newspaper article Roll Call

Politics, Not Policy, Shape Bridge over Highway Cliff

Article excerpt

Thursday will see this year's most consequential vote in the once- mighty House Ways and Means Committee -- to propose one of the more assertive legislative punts in recent memory.

The panel will get behind a plan for patching the gaping chasm in the Highway Trust Fund for the next 10 months, after which the fundamental fiscal flaw in the nation's main public works program will be exposed once again. House Republicans, not worried about losing control of the chamber this fall, have concluded that's when they stand their best chance of driving a long-term solution.

The Senate is looking at a totally different approach, one that wraps the funding problem in caution tape for only five months. The Democrats there are keenly aware they may have to turn over the keys to the GOP come January, so they view the lame-duck session as potentially their last best chance to come up with a lasting fix to a problem that's been festering for years.

Put another way, this month's big fight over how to sidestep the edge of the transportation funding cliff is not going to be about remaking an outdated policy. Not surprising this close to an election, political positioning is at the heart of the dispute -- which only will determine which party can claim the upper hand when the real debate begins.House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan has decided his only viable choice is to bequeath the problem to his almost certain GOP successor, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, betting Ryan can strike a deal next spring, when a whiff of cross-party collaboration is the new-car smell infusing the start of a new Congress.

Senior Senate Democrats invested in transportation policy all have reached the opposite conclusion. For them, the best hope for replenishing the trust fund for the indefinite future will come during the other period that's ripe for deal-making -- the lame duck in the five possible weeks for legislating between Election Day and Christmas. Besides, if the Democrats have lost their majority, they will be potentially eager to take the best deal they can get before Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden must hand the Finance gavel to Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch.

The length of the inevitable can-kicking needs to be settled in the three weeks before summer recess.

The trust fund will otherwise become functionally insolvent on Aug. 1, meaning federal payments for road and bridge projects will be trimmed about 30 percent and checks will get cut only a couple of times a month. As a result most states would likely put a hold on all but emergency repairs, even though August is the traditional launch of highway construction season. If the trust fund is not replenished by fall, as many as 700,000 jobs could be imperiled -- a number equivalent to all the new payroll positions created nationwide in March, April and May. …

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