- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Top Senate negotiators reached a bipartisan deal Tuesday to raise tens of billions of dollars in fees and tax enforcement and spend it on transportation, setting up an end-of-summer showdown over the politically popular but financially tricky highway bill.

A first test vote didn’t go well for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who struck the deal with senior Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer but who saw Democrats launch a filibuster Tuesday, saying they need more time to study the details of the 1,000-page bill, which was released just minutes before the vote.

“We need the opportunity to look at this bill,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “This is a big, big bill.”

They’re rushing an end-of-month deadline when the current highway bill expires.

The House has already passed a short-term bill keeping the program running through mid-December, which GOP leaders in that chamber said would give all sides a chance to hammer out a long-term deal.

Mr. McConnell and Mrs. Boxer, though, worked out a six-year deal, at a new cost of nearly $50 billion, and Mr. McConnell said he wants it finished in time to ship back to the House for action next week.

SEE ALSO: House passes short-term highway fix; Congress’ plans still in flux before July 31 deadline

That could mean Saturday and Sunday sessions this weekend, the Kentucky Republican said, urging his colleagues to read fast.

“Senators from both parties know that a long-term highway bill is in the best interest of our country. So we’ll continue working together to get a good one passed,” Mr. McConnell said.

Senate Republican leaders insisted on a multiyear bill to end Congress’ repeated use of short-term patches, which make it difficult for state and local government to plan ahead or break ground on major projects. The GOP pitched the compromise as the latest in a series of bipartisan achievements, from an overhaul of Medicare payments to a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law.

The McConnell-Boxer bill emphasizes projects of national or regional importance, establishes a freight corridor program and gives states the flexibility to bundle rural road and bridge projects together.

“It is a breakthrough,” said Mrs. Boxer of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

While authorizing six years of planning, the bill only guarantees funding for the first three years.

Rather than raise the gas tax, the bill would find new money by stiffening tax compliance, capturing airport security fees and fines from motor-vehicle safety violations and selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

GOP leaders said it was the type of long-term bill that Democrats had clamored for, so they should “take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

Even if they succeed, the Senate is on a collision course with the House, which last week approved $8 billion in highway funding to keep state projects moving through December.

All sides agree on the need for a long-term bill, but the trick has been finding enough money without raising taxes — something the GOP has ruled out. A six-year extension would require about $90 billion in new money.

House GOP leaders are eyeing a one-time tax they would apply to lure about $2 trillion in overseas business income back to the U.S. But it will take months to hash out that language, so they moved the short-term fix.

Further complicating matters, senators from both sides of the aisle are eyeing this month’s must-pass bill as a vehicle for their own priorities.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and other Republicans want to ding Obamacare, end President Obama’s amnesty for certain illegal immigrants and strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood. Meanwhile, most Senate Democrats and some Republicans want to revive the federal Export-Import Bank, an agency that for decades financed the sale of U.S. goods overseas but faces a slow death after lawmakers failed to renew its charter June 30.

Conservatives say the bank handed out “corporate welfare” and should fade away once its existing obligations are met. The House bill does not revive the bank.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican who opposes the bank, said the Senate should take up their short-term bill, “as is.”

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