On April 18, we saw another unusual vote in Congress on the transportation bill. While current transportation spending is already extended until June 30, the House has just passed another extension (H.R. 4348) until September 30 on a vote of 293-127.
However, this extension is not actually about keeping transportation spending flowing. Instead, it is a procedural move to negotiate a longer-term transportation bill with the Senate through a conference. A conference is how the House and Senate work out the differences between their two bills and agree on a final product that can be passed and signed into law.
The new extension bill does more than simply extend current law—it also includes language to authorize the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, incorporates environmental streamlining provisions and adds a few other provisions. The House is now using this bill as their “transportation bill” to request a conference with the Senate on MAP-21.
House leaders have opted for this uncommon strategy after several attempts to pass their long-term transportation bill, H.R. 7, failed. While we are fortunate that the new extension bill does not include an attack on bicycling and walking funding, that does not mean we are safe in conference. House leaders have indicated they will use H.R. 7, which repeals Safe Routes to School and eliminates funding for Transportation Enhancements, as their base of negotiations in conversations with the Senate. However, Representatives have never had a chance to offer amendments to improve H.R. 7—including the Petri-Blumenauer amendment to restore Safe Routes to School and Transportation Enhancements.
It is difficult to predict what will happen now. It is likely to be difficult for the House and Senate to find common ground between their two proposals, particularly if the House tries to push provisions from H.R. 7 and the Keystone pipeline language. The Keystone XL pipeline provisions have previously failed in Senate votes, and the President has issued a veto threat over the House language. At this point it appears that it will be challenging for the two bodies to find common ground and produce compromise legislation that could pass both the House and Senate. Yesterday, Secretary LaHood spoke at a transportation stakeholders event and expressed skepticism that Congress will produce a transportation law this year.
In spite of these challenges, we are being proactive and remaining on alert. We are discussing with our House and Senate champions the best way to protect dedicated funding for bicycling and walking and the Cardin-Cochran compromise. Stay tuned for the latest as we learn more.