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Congress strikes tentative deal on highway bill, sources say

By Ted Barrett and Deirdre Walsh, CNN
updated 8:58 PM EDT, Wed June 27, 2012
Congress appears ready to pass a $109 billion transportation bill, insiders tell CNN.
Congress appears ready to pass a $109 billion transportation bill, insiders tell CNN.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A formal announcement is expected late Wednesday night, multiple sources tell CNN
  • Leaders hope to attach transportation bill to measure on student loans
  • Passage would be significant moment for a Congress that's been trapped in partisan gridlock

Washington (CNN) -- After months of difficult talks, bipartisan House and Senate negotiators reached a tentative deal on a giant transportation funding bill Wednesday, multiple sources tell CNN. A formal announcement is expected late Wednesday night after the last details are hammered out and the final language is drafted, they said.

Congressional leaders said they hoped to attach the $109 billion highway bill to a measure extending a rate cut on some student loans and legislation reauthorizing national flood insurance and pass them as one bill out of the House and Senate by Friday. Doing so would let Congress beat looming deadlines when these measures expire and also would allow lawmakers to escape town for their Fourth of July recess.

Passage of the bill, which funds construction for highways, bridges and other transportation projects for two years in every state and congressional district in the nation, would be a significant accomplishment for lawmakers, who have spent much of this session mired in partisan gridlock.

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Aides predicted the final bill would get large bipartisan majorities although some Republicans are likely to oppose it because they think the measure costs too much.

Both parties had to compromise on core issues.

Republicans dropped language that would have approved the Keystone XL pipeline and prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating harmful coal ash waste from power plants.

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Democrats were forced to accept GOP demands to streamline and speed up the federal project review process of construction projects. Republicans said doing so would cut permitting times in half. Republicans also won reforms that would allow states to opt out of federal mandates to spend highway dollars on bike paths and highway beautification projects. Doing so, Republicans said, would allow states to spend more on critical infrastructure projects.

"I'm so glad House Republicans met Democrats half way, as Senate Republicans did months ago," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who said the bill will "protect and create 3 million jobs."

"At the end of the day, Senate Democrats fought for red tape, while House Republicans fought for jobs -- and got some important wins," said a House GOP leadership aide. "This bill is far from perfect, but it is a substantial improvement over the original Senate bill."

Although the agreement includes many of the reforms the House GOP pushed for, it falls far short of the broader transportation and energy bill that House Speaker John Boehner unveiled earlier this year.

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Boehner framed that proposal, which combined road and bridge projects with provisions promoting greater domestic energy production -- such as more drilling in public lands and approval of the Keystone XL pipeline -- as a major jobs bill. But internal GOP divisions forced House Republican leaders to pull the measure and it never got a floor vote. The energy portions of the bill did pass the House, but none of those were included in the final bill.

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