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Senate Passes Transportation Bill

The Senate completed work on a two-year surface transportation bill, which costs $109 billion and will provide clarity to local infrastructure projects.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, extolled the measure, passed on a bipartisan vote of 74 to 22, as “a jobs bill in the true sense of the word.”

“I hope the House will take this up and not listen to this shrill voice that makes up so much of the Republican caucus in the House,” he said.

But the nearly three million jobs expected to be “saved or created” by the measure largely come from construction jobs that stand to be lost if federally financed projects grind to a halt April 1, when money from the highway trust fund could no longer be used.

That’s absolutely correct. This is a maintenance bill that allows transportation projects to go forward. But there are some good elements to it. First, it gets this off the Congress’ plate for two years, providing some clarity on these projects that previously got one short-term extension after another. Second, while the bill mostly extends current law (and avoids a cut House Republicans were seeking), it includes an excellent Buy American provision authored by Sens. Sherrod Brown and Jeff Merkley. This would close several loopholes that allowed, for example, Chinese steel to be used to build the new segment of the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland. It would also improve transparency and reporting of any Buy America waivers, and requires a preference toward American materials in these infrastructure projects. Here’s a quote from Brown on the passage, which happened by voice vote:

Buy America’ provisions support Ohio jobs and Ohio businesses. We leave our manufacturing sector vulnerable when we buy steel and iron from foreign countries. When taxpayer dollars are invested in highway and infrastructure projects, they should be spent on American-made goods… By strengthening ‘Buy America’ requirements for highways and infrastructure, we not only support American jobs, but we eliminate the need to rely on foreign nations for vital manufactured materials.

The Senate beat back some other bad amendments, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and an extension of the federal employee pay freeze.

The third reason this bill passage is crucial is that the House abandoned its version of the bill, and Speaker John Boehner resigned himself to passing the bipartisan Senate version. This was a major loss for Boehner, who could not corral conservatives in his caucus to get on his side with a coherent alternative. Now they have this version in their laps with just two weeks until the expiration of surface transportation funding. Harry Reid urged the House to take up the bill:

This is exactly how Congress should work: Democrats and Republicans coming together to forge common-sense solutions that will provide much-needed improvements to our nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure, while creating jobs and keeping our economy moving forward.
The job-creating programs funded by this bill will expire in just a few weeks, and I urge my colleagues in the House to pass this bipartisan bill without delay. If there was ever a piece of legislation that should not turn into a partisan fight, this is it. I hope my Republican colleagues in the House will choose to join us in this bipartisan, job-creating effort instead of trying to appease the Tea Party by manufacturing another fight.

The White House is urging passage as well. The die appears to have already been cast here, but Boehner could have a surprise up his sleeve.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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