- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday he hopes to announce soon that he and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California have reached an agreement on a transportation bill.

“Sen. Boxer and I have been in negotiations all weekend and I spoke with her yesterday, and we’re hoping to be able to announce tomorrow a major bipartisan multiyear highway bill,” McConnell said, speaking to reporters in Shepherdsville, Kentucky.

Speaking earlier to a business group, McConnell said: “There’s a good chance that by tomorrow, you will have a McConnell-Boxer multiyear highway bill on the floor of the Senate.”

Boxer, the senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has been leading negotiations for Democrats on the legislation.

While a deal is close, Senate Democratic leaders have not yet signed off on a bill, according to a Senate Democratic aide. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the measure.

Senate leaders are under pressure to act quickly. Authority for transportation programs expires July 31, which would eliminate the Transportation Department’s ability to process promised highway and transit aid payments to states.

But simply renewing the department’s authorization isn’t enough. Without an infusion of cash, the balance in the federal Highway Trust Fund is forecast to drop below $4 billion - the minimum cushion needed to keep money flowing to states without interruption - by the end of the month.

Money has been a key obstacle. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, last week drew up a list of about $80 billion in tax changes and spending cuts that could be used to pay for transportation spending. But Democrats objected to the biggest proposal, which would reduce the rate of return on one of the investment funds available to federal retirees - a $31 billion savings over a decade.

The House passed an $8 billion bill last week to keep transportation programs going until Dec. 18 while lawmakers try to work out a longer-term funding plan. But McConnell has said that he wants to pass a bill that keeps programs going at least through next year’s presidential election, if not longer.

One option would be for lawmakers to raise the 18.4 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax, the chief source of Highway Trust Fund revenue, but that might produce a voter backlash. The tax hasn’t been raised since 1993.

McConnell made it clear that won’t happen: “Read my lips, we’re not raising the gas tax.”

Unable to agree on another funding source, lawmakers have passed 34 short-term extensions since 2009 that have kept transportation programs teetering on the edge of insolvency.

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Associated Press writer Bruce Schreiner in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.

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Follow Joan Lowy at https://www.twitter/AP_Joan_Lowy

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