Tomorrow’s Key Vote on Senate Transpo Bill Could Go Either Way

In interviewing a number of experts for an upcoming article about the prospects of passing a transportation bill, I’ve found a surprising amount of disagreement about whether the Senate bill will clear a key milestone tomorrow.

Last week, Majority Leader Harry Reid finalized his “manager’s amendment,” combining all the major components of the Senate transpo bill and adding several smaller amendments. One such amendment — the Cardin-Cochran amendment protecting access to bike-ped funding for cities and towns — had received the support of a number of transportation advocates, and today Transportation for America announced that it is mobilizing support for the entire Senate bill.

Before the bill can be voted on, Reid’s amendment has to pass. And before Reid’s amendment can be voted on, it must receive 60 or more “ayes” in a cloture vote. That cloture vote will be held tomorrow.

Some experts, speaking anonymously since this is all speculation for now, believe that Reid’s amendment will pass. Certain Republicans, like James Inhofe and Richard Shelby, have invested a great deal of time and effort in co-authoring portions of the bill and would rather not see their work lose out to delay tactics. Other Republicans, like Scott Brown and Susan Collins, are moderates who have more to more to gain by voting in a bipartisan manner than by sticking to the party line. Still others, like the retiring Olympia Snowe, simply have nothing to lose and would rather vote for something than for nothing.

Those five senators plus all the Democrats add up to 58 votes, so Reid would still need two more. Given the bipartisan manner in which the bill was written, that shouldn’t be hard, right?

But there is a second possibility that is worrying some other experts: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could delay the Senate’s transportation bill on purpose to protect the reputation of House Speaker John Boehner. By thwarting Reid’s cloture vote, the logic goes, McConnell buys time for Boehner to bring something — anything — to the floor of the House and maintain the illusion of control, even if it’s only a temporary extension. McConnell and others have also painted Reid as an extreme partisan for trying to prevent Republicans from amending his bill, and it’s possible that the tactic might peel away some Democrats who want to distance themselves from Reid.

And yet, delaying the Senate bill any longer may imperil its chances of passage, and McConnell may end up with his own loyalty crisis on his hands.

The cloture vote goes down tomorrow, after which the picture should be somewhat clearer. Stay tuned.