Senate Passes Two-Year Transportation Bill, 74-22; All Eyes on House

The Senate transportation bill has finally passed by a vote of 74 to 22. In a show of bipartisan support, which this bill has largely enjoyed from start to finish, 22 Republicans voted for its passage.

The bill, which would support $109 billion worth of federal transportation programs over two years if enacted — a much shorter time-frame than the usual five or six years — contains few sweeping changes to existing policy. Measures that initially weakened federal support for bicycle and pedestrian projects were mitigated by the Cardin-Cochran amendment, which was incorporated into the bill without a vote. The bill also gives transit agencies more flexibility to spend federal funding to maintain service during economic downturns, and equalizes the commuter tax benefits for transit riders and drivers. (We’ll have more policy details later today.)

“Some really good reforms have taken place here,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) from the floor immediately following the vote. He expressed his hope that the vote will lay the foundation for a “much longer, better, more robust highway authorization bill, but the first thing is to get into conference with the House and see what we can accomplish.”

“It was a great vote,” added Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). “If Senator Lautenberg were here, it would be 75.” Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey was one of only four Senators, and the only Democrat, not to vote. (Update: Lautenberg was attending the funeral of New Jersey Rep. Donald Payne, who passed away last week.)

Boxer and Inhofe, respectively the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, received a great deal of praise from their colleagues for assembling so much bipartisan support. “That’s hard work, and that’s the way the Senate should work,” Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said of their efforts. “I hope the House will take this bill, and I know they have their own opinions of how things should be, but it’s important to get this $110 billion out to America.”

What happens next is still a mystery.

The decision falls to Speaker John Boehner whether to amend and vote on the Senate bill in the House, or to pursue a different piece of companion legislation. So far, the House has given indications that it could do either, but has shown no movement beyond its five-year, $260 bill first introduced in the Transportation & Infrastructure committee in January.

Boehner’s bill, H.R. 7, attacks cities by gutting transit and bike-ped funds, but has also proven unpopular with Tea Party Republicans who object to so large a spending bill that lacks a convincing pay-for. Democrats, who were given virtually no role to play in crafting the bill, can all be expected to vote against it as it stands. For Boehner to reach 218 votes, he will have to make concessions to one end of the spectrum or the other.

No matter what the House eventually settles on, there remains the matter of the March 31 expiration date for all federal surface transportation funding. A House GOP staffer, speaking at the APTA legislative conference this week, said that there is essentially no chance of the House passing any kind of transportation bill, whether their own or the Senate’s, other than an extension of the current law before time runs out.