As state and local officials urged conferees to complete a bill, House and Senate staff recently continued talks at a frenzied pace. But while hopes were high that agreement was close, conferees have yet to strike a compromise on an overall funding level for the highway and transit reauthorization bill.
Only $11 billion separates the two bills passed by the House and Senate, with the House Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users at $284 billion an the Senate’s SAFETEA version at $295 billion. However, the Administration continued its insistence this week that it will budge no higher than the $284 billion level.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and Federal Highway Administration Mary Peters called a meeting at the White House recently to urge associations and industry organizations to support the Administration’s $284 billion funding level.
Card told the group that the Administration had made a substantial shift in agreeing to a $284 billion level, from the $256 billion funding level it had proposed last year. Card said the Administration believes that is the highest level that the Highway Trust Fund can support and that there would be no more room for increase. Mineta and Peters made similar comments.
AASHTO Executive Director John Horsley responded by expressing appreciation for the Administration’s move from $256 billion to $284 billion. He said, however, “Pennsylvania Avenue is a two-way street. I hope that as close as we are, we can close the distance and reach a compromise.” Other industry organizations also urged the White House to help produce a bill before the end of June.
In his closing comments, Card said, “Bring me a number 16 Senate conferees will accept and sign on to and then we’ll work from there.”
Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-CA), who had earlier signaled his optimism that a compromise could be achieved, recently urged conferees to agree to the $284 level. Thomas suggested that any increase beyond that level should be left to the next reauthorization cycle.
Conference leaders had hinted that a Senate counter-offer would be put on the table by week’s end for consideration by the Senate. Although Senate conferees had considered a meeting to discuss a possible response to the House position, that meeting did not occur. No additional pubic meetings have been scheduled for conferees although informal meetings of some members are taking place as efforts continue to resolve the roadblocks.