By JOAN LOWY
WASHINGTON (AP) — House and Senate leaders made a last-ditch effort Tuesday to revive stalled legislation to overhaul federal transportation programs — Congress' best bet for passage of a major jobs bill this year — but prospects for approval before the November elections are chancy at best.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as well as two key committee chairmen, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., held a closed-door meeting at which the senators made a new offer on how to handle a collection of sensitive policy and financing matters still in dispute.
The two party leaders told the chairmen to "redouble our efforts," Mica told reporters as he left the meeting.
"We're going to take it hour by hour to see if we can get the job done," he said.
A 47-member House-Senate committee has been holding negotiations on the bill for over a month, but it has been unable to reach agreement on a host of difficult issues, lawmakers involved in the process and their staffs said. Those include easing environmental regulations to speed up construction projects, reducing the number of transportation programs and providing funding for bike paths, sidewalks and other "transportation enhancements."
Time is running extremely short. Authority to spend money from the Highway Trust Fund — the main source of federal transportation aid to states _ expires June 30. As a practical matter, congressional leaders need to make a decision by about Wednesday on whether to continue to try to pass a comprehensive bill, or whether seek a temporary extension of transportation programs. There are only about a half dozen days left in the month in which Congress is scheduled to be in session, and it takes time to prepare an extension bill and pass it.
Boehner has already signaled that if there is to be an extension, it should be at least six months long. That would push off the question of how to shore up the trust fund — which is forecast to go broke sometime next year — until after the election. Highway and transit programs have limped along under a series of nine extensions since the last long-term transportation bill expired in 2009.
The Senate passed a bipartisan, $109 billion transportation bill earlier this year that would consolidate current programs, give states more flexibility on how they spend federal aid and streamline environmental regulations to speed up completion of highway projects. House Republicans also crafted a comprehensive bill, but were unable to pass the measure. There are deep divisions within the GOP about whether transportation programs should be forced to live entirely with the revenue generated by federal gas taxes and other user fees, even if it means cutting programs by more than a third.
After several tries, House leaders gave up trying to pass their bill, and instead passed what was effectively a shell bill designed to meet legislative requirements necessary to begin negotiations with the Senate. Included in the shell bill was a provision to accelerate approval of the controversial Keystone XL
Senate Democrats have blamed intransigence by House Republicans for the stalemate in negotiations. Reid has suggested that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is trying to delay the transportation bill in order to sabotage the economy.
Road-building and other industries dependent on highway programs have also identified House Republicans as the main obstacle to passage of a bill. A coalition of industry groups launched radio ads last week in the congressional districts of four House negotiators. "With billions of dollars at stake, and thousands of good paying jobs, it is time for Congress to take action," the ads said. "Will your congressman be part of the problem, or part of the transportation solution?"
But one of the Republican negotiators, Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin, said that until Tuesday he had felt senators were stalling, unwilling to compromise on some of the easier policy differences. He said he was encouraged that Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., co-sponsor of the Senate bill, told Republican negotiators at a briefing late Tuesday that the Senate is "serious about getting a bill."
"I think what we'll try to do is give it the old college try here one more time to try to get them to move a little bit and see where it goes," Ribble said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to lawmakers Monday urging them not to give up on a comprehensive bill. To do so would mean "the economic growth potential of infrastructure investment would be squandered and job losses would likely continue in the coming months and years," wrote Bruce Josten, the chamber's executive vice president.