Charlie's Corner: Federal transportation legislation news

On Tuesday, the Conference Committee of 47 members tasked with drafting a compromise between the Senate’s two-year transportation authorization and the House’s policy-riddled 90-day extension, met for the first time. Rep. Markey is the one member of the Massachusetts delegation on the committee.

Below, you’ll find articles of interest from April. In other transportation and infrastructure news: members of the cast of The West Wing reunited for a PSA for walking, Mayor Emmanuel’s Infrastructure Trust was approved, and this article traces the interesting story of American Airlines’ fiscally misguided AAirpass.



1. House Leaders trying again on Keystone – Politico – 4/12

House Republican leaders have a new game plan for the long-delayed transportation bill: Force a conference with the Senate and fight to attach language approving the Keystone XL pipeline.

House leadership plans to take up another 90-day extension of transportation policies that would include the Keystone provision, according to multiple Republican aides. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has already been asked to draft such a bill.

“This bill will pave the way for a House-Senate conference to discuss both reforming how taxpayer dollars are spent on federal infrastructure programs and also meaningful solutions that would address high gas prices and create jobs by permanently removing government barriers to American energy production,” a GOP leadership aide told POLITICO.

“Presumably their logical intended outcome is to force something like MAP-21 [the Senate bill] plus Keystone being signed into law,” another aide said. Under that scenario, the aide said it would be unlikely for the House’s transportation proposals to survive.

House leaders have struggled for months to win enough support for various iterations of a five-year transportation bill written by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The lower chamber has already passed separate bills to approve Keystone and expand offshore energy production, but has not been able to take up the transportation part of what they hoped would be an energy-transportation package.

Senators have been rallying hard for House approval of its transportation bill, but adding the Keystone language would complicate matters — two separate Keystone amendments were defeated when the Senate was considering its bill.

The move would put House Democrats in a tough spot: many have lashed out at the Keystone project but have pleaded for passage of the Senate’s transportation bill.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has said he supports the Keystone pipeline but that it should not be attached to the Senate’s transportation bill, because he worries it would bog down the entire effort.

2. House approves 90-day transportation extension – Politico – 4/18

The House approved a 90-day transportation extension 293-127 after adopting three amendments that add provisions regarding harbor spending, environmental streamlining for infrastructure projects and regulation of coal ash.

Sixty-nine Democrats voted for the bill while 14 Republicans voted against it. The measure drew support from both the AFL-CIO, Transportation Trades Department and the Chamber of Commerce. The stopgap’s intent is to get to conference with the Senate, which has already passed its own two-year measure.

“Taking the other side at their word … passage of this extension of current law through the end of the fiscal year will allow us to go to conference with the other body,” said top Transportation Committee Democrat Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who voted for the bill and said during the debate that he and other Democrats are ready to go to conference.

But the path forward is unclear — the White House has threatened to veto the bill, and the Keystone XL pipeline language has already been rejected in the Senate.

And though the extension attracted significant bipartisan support, Democrats stuck to their guns earlier in the day. They again used a procedural tactic in an attempt to force a vote on the Senate’s two-year bill — a gambit that has repeatedly failed.

“All we’re asking for is an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill,” said Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.). “I double-dare you …. bring the bill to the floor.”  The effort failed again Wednesday, with Republicans rejecting a motion to recommit the bill.

Port lawmakers view the bill as a victory since it includes a tweaked version of the RAMP Act that would tie Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund spending to its yearly receipts. “I find this to be an egregious abuse and diversion of taxpayer dollars,” Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) said of current policy as he spoke in support of the bill he authored. “Years of neglect on these waterways is hurting American competitiveness.”

And Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) praised the passage of some of the environmental streamlining provisions that originated in his now-abandoned five-year bill.

“Shovel-ready has become a national joke, and we’ve got to end that,” Mica said. Those provisions may give the GOP some leverage going into a conference with the Senate, though the Senate’s bill includes some streamlining provisions as well.

Conservative Republicans that want to see a weaker federal hand in transportation planning were also put in a tough spot with the extension. Two hours before the vote, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) told POLITICO he was still mulling where he would cast his lot.

“I think we’re going to lose a lot of the reforms we desperately need,” Broun said. He ended up voting against the bill.


3. Transportation bill faces twists, turns ahead- Politico- 4/19

House Republicans have put to rest their latest bout over what a transportation bill should contain — but the road ahead to enactment is as rocky as ever.

Passage in the House enables a conference committee meeting between members of both chambers, where difficult negotiations await over how the bill should be paid for and how to handle the Keystone XL pipeline language in the House-passed bill, as well as other items.

Still, transportation watchers are finding solace in the fact that the House has passed a bill — any bill.  It’s no small victory considering the number of aborted attempts the House has made to date.

“We need to get this job done. We need to continue the process. We’ve been down several roads, and some of those had some bumps, and some of them had some dead ends,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.).

The bill the House passed is a three-month extension of transportation programs, plus language that, along with expediting the Keystone XL pipeline, would streamline environmental reviews for transportation projects and block coal ash standards.

“It might not be ideal in the minds of many people, but … some resolution this year is a good thing,” said Janet Kavinoky, executive director of transportation and infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But moving what amounts to a shell bill is an admission that GOP leaders in the House had to abandon their preferred option — a five-year bill chock full of policy priorities — because they simply could not muster the votes.

“If I’d had my druthers, HR 7 would’ve been on the floor six weeks ago.  But we didn’t have 218” votes, House Speaker John Boehner said.  “When it came to this bill, the House decided it didn’t want to vote for it, so we had to go to Plan B.”

In the end, 69 Democrats voted for the bill.

“We support going to conference. That’s one of the reasons we will support this bill despite its faults,” Peter DeFazio (D-Ore) said.

In part this is because many Democrats believe the Senate will have the upper-hand in negotiations. Since the House bill lacks almost all of the moving parts found in a transportation bill, bargaining position for House members will arguably be restricted to current law — and Senate conferees will have the relative luxury of conferencing a bill passed by their chamber.

“This is the box you end up in when you end up with a conference whose members want to put the perfect ahead of the good, and when that happens you end up with something that’s far less than ideal,” said one GOP aide who helped draft pieces of the bill.

It’s a statement of frustration typical of staffers intimately involved with drafting policy that’s being left on the side of the road.

Beyond the scope and funding issues conferees will have to resolve, they will also have to try to find a compromise position on the Keystone XL language. A deal acceptable to all sides will be a difficult needle to thread, made all the more complicated by a looming White House veto threat.

“Maybe lightning will strike and they’ll come up with a conference report. I just don’t see how they can produce a conference report that will pass over here,” said Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio).

LaTourette predicted that the conference agreement will probably look a lot like the Senate bill, “which is why we won’t have a bill until after the election.”

Jack Schenendorf, counsel at Covington and Burling LLP, agreed that a compromise on Keystone may not be possible until after the election, but that it is possible.

“Keystone is an approval process … and because it’s a process, that process can always be tinkered with to maybe work out some sort of acceptable compromise. Keystone isn’t a black or white, all or nothing,” Schenendorf said.

DeFazio said the House finally acting is “progress” that will allow “a meaningful conversation with the Senate.”

He also said he’ll be happy to think up “a few more tweaks … that could be acceptable to Chairwoman [Barbara] Boxer,” and offered to “help facilitate” between Boxer and House Republicans.

In a preview of what’s to come as negotiations go behind closed doors, Democrats and Republicans sparred briefly in a wink-wink bout on the House floor over naming conferees. It was a tongue-in-cheek nod to the partisan sparring that happened over naming conferees to the FAA reauthorization bill, and likely a taste of things to come.

Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) asked Mica if he would support “moving expeditiously” to name conferees. After some coy remarks, Mica agreed and said he’d even draft the letter himself.

Both sides would like to move to conference as quickly as possible. But because of the way House floor rules work, House conferees are rarely named until a final deal is practically in hand. Instead, lawmakers “pre-conference” bills outside the bounds of a formal conference.

That’s because once House conferees on a bill are named, if a final deal isn’t produced in a certain amount of time the minority can force disruptive parliamentary House floor votes until a deal is struck.

But that won’t stop Democrats from calling on the House to name its conferees anyway.  Wednesday, just minutes after the House passed the bill, Boxer issued a news release saying the vote is encouraging “as long as they follow through and immediately appoint conferees so that Congress can complete its work and get a bill to the president’s desk.”


 4. Boehner: Keystone veto threat is moot- Politico- 4/19

The Obama administration’s recent threat to veto transportation legislation because of Keystone XL pipeline language has been rendered moot, according to House Speaker John Boehner.

He said the 90-day extension that cleared the House yesterday — with 69 Democrats on board — has a “veto-proof” majority. Democrats say the Ohio Republican is misinterpreting their votes.

An aide for Boehner said “of course” bipartisan lobbying from the House for the Keystone provision is expected going into the conference report.

“It was in the House-passed bill. And it’s good policy that will create tens of thousands of American jobs and keep our closest ally from shipping energy and jobs to China,” the aide said.

The bill, which was passed by nearly 70 percent of the House, was put forth mainly with the goal to get to conference with the Senate on long-term transportation legislation. But Republicans are hoping the energy attachment on what is widely seen as a must-pass piece of legislation will allow them to clear one of their top priorities.

Democrats caution that their votes were all about transportation — not energy — and should not be interpreted as pro-Keystone.

“Many Democrats went to the floor and specifically stated their support was only to get to conference,” said a Democratic leadership aide, noting Democratic Transportation Committee leaders Nick Rahall (W.Va.) and Peter DeFazio (Ore.) specifically stated that sentiment on the floor. “To read this as message of veto-proof support for Keystone or other irrelevant pieces is ridiculous.”

Rahall wants to see the fuel pipeline to Canada go forward. But he told POLITICO his vote wasn’t about Keystone.

“Yeah, we need an energy policy, but that’s not what this bill is about. This bill is about transportation and about putting Americans to work,” Rahall said.

Asked if he thought the bloc of Dems now on record as voting for a bill with Keystone attached means that same group would vote against the president’s wishes, Rahall said: “That remains to be seen. That’s a lot of blustery … bluster.”

“It was about getting to a conference,” New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell (D) told POLITICO of his vote for the extension. Pascrell is locked in a tight primary race for a redrawn district also sought by Rep. Steve Rothman — and energy-conscious voters are closely watching Keystone votes across the country.

The Senate turned back repeated attempts to attach the pipeline to its own two-year transportation bill, and Democratic leaders seem unwilling to concede anytime soon. But Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), a Keystone supporter who voted for the extension “mostly to go to conference,” said such a concession might be the key to getting both chambers and both parties on the same page.

“If you take the Senate bill, put Keystone on and the Senate would accept that — I’d be very happy. If they accepted that, send it over here. It would pass; we would get it done. I don’t see the Senate doing it right now,” he said. “I’m afraid that will be a sticking point … it will be the talking point here.”

Fellow Illinois Rep. Randy Hultgren (R) was pessimistic the Senate could find enough extra votes for Keystone to clear the 60-vote threshold.

The pipeline is at the forefront of congressional Republicans’ election-year rhetoric; they say the president is standing in the way of thousands of jobs. And dozens of Democrats whose voting record now includes support of Keystone gave Boehner a fresh round of ammunition for his messaging.

“The president is becoming increasingly isolated in his opposition to this job-creating energy project. He should listen to the voices of the American people and unlock the project so we can get Americans working and address high gas prices,” Boehner said following Wednesday’s passage of the transportation/pipeline combo — the fifth such time the House has voted on Keystone in two years.

While there are Democrats who oppose the president’s delay of approval of the pipeline, there is a strong faction of stop-gap “yea” voters who will be certain to defend the administration’s position.

“I’d be with the president on that in a heartbeat,” said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.).

And there were other measures packaged in the extension that Democrats oppose — including GOP-backed environmental streamlining provisions the Senate is almost certain to strip out, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) said.

“I voted exclusively to get it to conference. And we’ll see what comes back in the conference report,” Bishop said. “I find it very difficult to believe the conference report will come back either with the Keystone provision or the NEPA [streamlining] provisions.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he doesn’t think anything has changed since the last time Keystone fell four votes short of being attached to the Senate’s bill.

“The speaker needed to get that in the bill so he could get his — I’m trying to be polite — his people to vote for this. It’s pretty clear now how we stand on this issue. We’ve voted on it a number of times,” Reid said.


5. Senate Appropriations Committee votes to restore funding to HUD’s Sustainable Communities Initiative –Smart Growth America – 4/19

This morning, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its FY 2013 spending bill for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and restored $50 million in funding to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Sustainable Communities Initiative.

To those of you who took time to write or call your Senator in the past week on behalf of this issue, THANK YOU! This victory would not have been possible without your help!

The Sustainable Communities Initiative is part of the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a collaboration between HUD, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency which coordinates federal housing, transportation, water, and other infrastructure investments to make neighborhoods more prosperous, allow people to live closer to jobs, save households time and money, and reduce pollution.

The Senate’s vote is a huge step forward for the Partnership’s work this year. The Partnership programs are already helping communities across the country use their resources more wisely and support their local economy – read more about these communities on our Partnership blog.

The Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development, and Related Agencies approved a draft of the bill on Tuesday. Click here for more details about funding levels included in the bill.

The Appropriations Committee also approved its overall spending levels, allowing work on other spending bills to move forward.


6. Reid Draws Line Against Keystone – The Hill – 4/19

Senate Democrats will hold firm and reject House Republican demands to include approval of the Keystone oil pipeline in transportation funding legislation, their leader said Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would not in any way help Republicans move Keystone approval across the finish line.

“Personally, I’m not — I’m not one of the conferees — but personally I think Keystone is a program that we’re not going, that I am not going to help in any way I can,” Reid told reporters. “The president feels that way. I do, too.”

Reid’s position creates more political uncertainty for popular transportation programs and sets Senate Democrats up for a collision with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republicans insisting on the project as a price for a new highway bill.

Reid’s tough line on the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline was also reflected in the lawmakers he chose Tuesday to negotiate with the House.

Senate leaders picked eight Democrats and six Republicans, and among the Democrats’ selections, only Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) — who isn’t facing reelection until 2014 — has voted for requiring approval of the project to bring oil from Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries.

The other seven Democrats include Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who heads messaging for the caucus, as well as prominent liberal Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.).

Baucus, in a statement through his office, signaled Tuesday that he’s not inclined to insist on approval of the project in the transportation bill talks.

“No one is a bigger supporter of the Keystone pipeline than Sen. Baucus, and he is looking for every opportunity to help move the project forward. But Sen. Baucus will not put more than 1 million American jobs supported by the highway bill in jeopardy unless he’s sure whatever Keystone measure proposed has the legs to pass Congress, be signed into law and stand up to legal scrutiny, so we don’t end up delaying the project even further by getting it tied up in the courts,” his office said in a statement.

The pipeline has become a major issue in the presidential campaign, with presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney saying last week, “I will build that pipeline if I have to myself.”

Republicans have sought to use the issue to batter Obama on high gas prices.

The administration in January rejected a permit for the pipeline. But the White House stressed that its decision was based not on the “merits” but instead because Republicans had demanded an “arbitrary” permit deadline in a late 2011 payroll tax cut bill. The administration has invited developer TransCanada Corp. to reapply for the cross-border permit, which the company intends to do.

It’s possible that Reid’s statement is a negotiating tactic.

Indeed, some Democrats signaled that there could be room for a compromise that stops well short of GOP demands for almost immediate approval of a cross-border permit for Keystone.

“It depends on what the Keystone pipeline measure is,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “If it is scheduling and things like that, it is one thing; if it is going to ram it down people’s throats without any review, that’s a different question,” said Whitehouse, who is not on the conference committee. “How it shakes out will be up to the conferees.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), asked if he was confident that the final transportation bill would be free of Keystone, replied, “It depends what shape it were to be in.

“There may be a lot of people on our side who think [that], properly done, they may find that acceptable — I can’t tell you right now where it is at,” he said.

Kerry and Whitehouse opposed mandatory approval of the pipeline when the Senate voted last month to reject Sen. John Hoeven’s (R-N.D.) amendment to the highway bill that would have authorized construction. The amendment garnered 56 supporters when 60 were needed for passage.

Lawmakers have until the end of June before existing funding for highway projects expires. The two sides are working to merge the House bill, which is an extension through September that mandates the pipeline, with the Senate’s Keystone-free, two-year highway package.

The House approved its transportation package last week with 69 Democratic votes, a tally that Republicans quickly used to claim momentum for including Keystone in a final package.

The Keystone language, popular among Republicans, is politically helpful for Boehner, who has struggled to corral GOP support for the transportation bill.

Republicans in both chambers see the pipeline as a winning political issue.

They accuse the White House of passing up a chance to improve energy security and create jobs.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said he’s hopeful the final transportation package will include the pipeline and that Obama will have a “change of heart” about approving the project.

But he also sees an upside to letting it ride.

“From a political standpoint, if they want to fight on this issue all the way into the fall, that is a fight we welcome. This is a no-brainer for the American people; I think we are on the right side of this argument,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Environmentalists bitterly oppose the project due to greenhouse gases from oil sands extraction and use, among other concerns.

Major business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and oil companies are pushing for the pipeline.


7. Senate puts out its transportation conferees- Politico – 4/24

The Senate has again lapped the House: The only chamber to pass a long-term transportation bill was also the first to name committee members for a bicameral conference.

On Tuesday morning, after behind-the-scenes negotiating between Senate leader Harry Reid and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Reid formally requested a conference with the House on the transportation bill that now includes Keystone XL language and named its negotiators: Eight Democrats and six Republicans.

The Democratic conferees: Barbara Boxer of California, Max Baucus of Montana, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Chuck Schumer of New York, Bill Nelson of Florida and Robert Menendez of New Jersey. And the Republicans: Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, David Vitter of Louisiana, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and John Hoeven of North Dakota.

Boxer, the head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, will also be chairwoman of the conference committee. She said she expects the House to name its negotiators soon — and a preliminary schedule notes a “possible” motion to go to conference on Wednesday. After that, the real work begins, Boxer said Tuesday morning.

“What we want to do is have the staffs talk and find out where the areas of agreement are and where the areas of disagreement are,” Boxer said, noting issues of compatibility will include Gulf Coast recovery language (written into both chambers’ bills) and Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund reform sent over by the House.

“Then if they’re unresolved, we have to deal with each other and we will try and resolve the issues that are controversial,” Boxer said.

The House has sent over a trio of provisions that will ruffle some Democratic senators: environmental streamlining, coal ash language and approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Keystone has been defeated in the Senate several times, and now the House will try to get it onto the must-sign transportation bill despite a White House veto threat.

Asked by a reporter if Keystone will be defeated, Boxer replied: “There’s nothing to defeat. We just have to reach agreement,” later adding, “I would like to keep off anything controversial.”

Leaders of the House transportation committee don’t want to wait too long before getting into a formal conference. In a Tuesday letter, committee leaders urged House Speaker John Boehner to get the ball rolling.

“As a result of the House passing H.R. 4348 last week, we appreciate your actions to expedite the appointment of House conferees this week to resolve the differences between the House-passed and Senate-passed versions of the bill,” wrote Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.). Highways and Transit panel Chairman John Duncan (R-Tenn.) and top Democrat Peter DeFazio of Oregon also signed onto the letter.

But a long conference could cause some heartburn — under House rules, motions to instruct conferees would become privileged May 19. That means any House member could bring up the nonbinding motion and force a vote on it — offering Democrats yet another chance to press for passage of the Senate’s version of the bill.

Of the 14 conferees named, all six Republicans and Baucus voted for a Keystone amendment to the Senate’s original two-year transportation bill in March, meaning the conferees are evenly split on the issue. A Baucus aide on Monday said Baucus will make sure Keystone doesn’t put the transportation bill “in jeopardy.”

If the bill plays out like the successful FAA conference earlier this year, expect more House members than senators. The FAA conference in late January had nine senators (with a 5-4 Democratic advantage) and 18 representatives (with an 11-7 GOP edge).


 8. All eyes and cameras on the transportation bill – Politico – 4/26

In the course of an unusual cycle for the transportation bill, here’s yet another wrinkle: a quickly called public conference meeting that may not be the last.

And, unlike conferences on transportation bills in recent years, the meeting called on Thursday for May 8 won’t be held in a cramped, windowless room in the bowels of the Capitol’s basement.  Instead, it’s to be held in a spacious Senate office building that’s wired for video.

“We decided that we needed to have a civilized conference. That’s why we’re in a nice room,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.

It’s a chance for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who’s chairing the conference committee this time around, to seize momentum on the bill following the House’s action earlier this week.

The announcement also suggests Boxer may call more than one public meeting.  A senior Senate Republican aide suggested Boxer may have one public meeting to open discussions and one public meeting to discuss whatever deal is reached at the end of the process.

Though it’s not unprecedented to have two public meetings to bookend a conference, it’s a practice that hasn’t been employed on major transportation bills since 2004.

“Think these are uncharted waters for everyone,” said one transportation lobbyist.

The conference meeting will basically be a platform for lawmakers to message their positions. In truth, most of the negotiations will take place behind closed doors.

Senate Democratic conferees have already met in private, and staff on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers are already getting down to business on negotiations that will continue over a week-long recess.

Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said he would huddle with Energy Committee leader Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Ways and Means head Dave Camp (R-Mich.) later Thursday. He said he plans to sit down with all the House Republican conferees on Friday.

“I want to hear their priorities and what they want to do,” Mica said, adding that Speaker John Boehner already provided the official leadership direction to many of the Republican conferees on Wednesday afternoon, shortly before they were publicly announced.

“We’re off to as good a start as you can get. I wish I could tell you something that I saw as a problem right now but I don’t.”

Mica said he would like to see plenty of open conference meetings as well — or at least “as many that can be productive.