- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2015

Democrats pressured Senate Republicans on Thursday to reveal their strategy for a long-term extension of highway funding, saying states are putting crucial road projects on hold because they don’t know whether Congress will meet a July 31 deadline to reauthorize the road-building fund.

GOP leaders said they’ll turn to the highway bill later this month, but have not yet laid out any plans to pay for a $90 billion expansion of the program, which both Democrats and Republicans say is needed to fill the gap between projected costs and expected revenues from the federal gas tax over the next six years.

The current 18.4 cent-per-gallon levy hasn’t been raised since 1993, and many Democrats say it’s time to raise it at least to catch up with inflation and improved fuel efficiency.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, eight Senate Democrats blasted him for lacking a firm plan.

“Your announcement that the Senate will consider transportation-related legislation in two weeks, in which you expressed skepticism about long-term legislation, and included no details regarding the bill’s financing, duration, or policy provisions, seems to confirm that no serious effort will be made to advance the kind of comprehensive transportation bill that our economy needs and Americans deserve,” the Democrats said.

With a gas tax increase likely out of bounds, both Democrats and Republicans say a one-time tax on business income lured back to the U.S. could produce the billions needed — but timing could be a problem.

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Senate Democrats want a long-term bill now, but Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and House Ways and Means chairman, said it will take months to get a deal done.

“It is impossible to put in place a six-year financing package for highways in the next two weeks,” Mr. Ryan said at a breakfast hosted by Politico.

The situation is forcing Democrats and President Obama to consider whether they would agree to an extension through the end of 2015, in exchange for a promise from the GOP that there will finally be a long-term deal down the road. The highway fund has operated for years on short-term patches.

“We want to see what the Republican plan is. That’s the bottom line,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “We don’t like a patch. We don’t like a short-term extension. But we’re not going to prejudge anything in a vacuum. Let’s see what they have.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest also straddled the line Thursday, saying it proposed a system of business tax reforms to pay for the $478 billion transportation bill it prefers, although it differs from the Ryan plan.

“I’m not willing to make a public declaration one way or the other right now, other than at some point, Congress needs to get serious about making a long-term commitment to investing in our country’s infrastructure,” he said.

In the meantime, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said $2 billion worth of projects have been pulled or delayed because Congress hasn’t passed a long-term plan. “I think we’ve already seen some damage inflicted on the system,” he said.

A long-term deal has eluded lawmakers for years, and there are still a number of potential hurdles. Some lawmakers are eyeing the transportation bill as a vehicle to debate the Export-Import Bank, an agency that finances the sale of U.S. exports to international buyers, but whose authority to strike new deals expired at the end of June.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and 2016 presidential candidate who opposes the bank, told Ex-Im’s supporters Thursday to back off.

“The bank’s charter has expired, and it should stay closed for business,” he said. “Congress should reject any effort to resuscitate it by attaching a reauthorization to a highway bill or any other ‘must pass’ bill being considered.”

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