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Attempts for bipartisanship slow down Senate Finance plan for short-term trust fund fix

The Senate Finance Committee plan to rescue the nation’s transportation fund through the end of the year took a slight detour today as Chairman Wyden (D-OR) made some key changes and deferred debate on potentially contentious amendments in the name of trying to reach bipartisan agreement.

Between yesterday and today, Chairman Wyden amended his Preserving American’s Transit and Highways (PATH) Act, which would provide a short-term extension of the federal transportation program and come up with the necessary funds (about $9 billion) to the keep the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) solvent through the end of the year. (The HTF is expected to become insolvent before the end of August.)

The amendments came in the form of a Chairman’s mark – a  single package of amendments or legislative language put forth by the Chairman of a committee — which was agreed to by (bipartisan) unanimous consent today in committee, but final consideration was postponed until after the July recess.

“On the Finance Committee, all the Democrats and all the Republicans do not want to slam the brakes on 6,000 road projects, putting thousands of Americans out of work,” said Chairman Wyden this morning. “These modifications move the committee closer to bipartisan agreement.”

But it may yet be difficult to find agreement between the two sides and move a truly bipartisan package out of the committee that staves off insolvency of the trust fund. In the House, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) has said, “There is no way tax hikes to pay for more spending will fly in the House.”

All along, Republicans especially, but also Democrats, have asserted that it’s important to protect the historic principle of “user pays” for the trust fund — ensuring that the people using the transportation system are the ones paying for its upkeep or expansion. Yet, the most significant change made to the Chairman’s mark today was removing the increase in heavy truck fees — the only “user fee” in the handful of revenue increases included in the PATH Act that was introduced by Chairman Wyden two days ago. The other four methods of raising money are changes to tax code or accounting maneuvers, which were all largely modified as well.

The Republican ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-UT) made it clear that his party understands the urgency to do something, but are still unlikely to support a plan that won’t pass the House. “It’s important for the committee to get something done, but it’s even more important that we get it done right,” he said.

And, “The last thing we want is for state departments of transportation to be left holding the bag in August,” said Sen. Thune (R-SD).

The Senate Finance Committee is planning to resume discussions on this package again after the congressional recess for Independence Day. Amendments that may be considered at that point include plans for a gas tax increase and indexing it to inflation, creating a new multimodal account, ending the federal program as we know it, and an amendment to defund the extremely popular program that helps get money down to the local level for safer streets (TAP).

We’ll continue to track the developments.