Bipartisan House and Senate negotiators on Tuesday unveiled a long-sought agreement on a five-year bill to fund highway and transit construction projects across the country. The measure, which is expected to be voted on in both chambers and sent to President Barack Obama by the end of the week, also restores the Export-Import Bank, whose charter expired earlier this year after several Republicans fought to kill it.
"This conference report provides long-term certainty for states and local governments, and good reforms and improvements to the programs that sustain our roads, bridges, transit and passenger rail system," said a joint statement from the four lead lawmakers on the bill: Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.
Congress approved more than 30 short-term bills over the past decade to keep transportation construction projects going while Democrats and Republicans argued over how to pay for a longer term bill, something that drew the ire of state and local transportation planners. The 18.4 cent per gallon federal gas tax -- the main source of funding for the highway trust fund -- has not gone up in 20 years leading to persistent shortfalls in revenues.
The expected reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank is a major victory for Democrats and many Republicans who feared losing the financing tool for American-made exports would lead to U.S. job losses. Some conservative Republicans argued the bank was a waste of taxpayer dollars and that such loans should be made by the private sector.
Tucked inside the transportation agreement is a pilot program to test the viability of allowing pets on some Amtrak trains.
Late Monday, negotiators working to rewrite the controversial George W. Bush-era education law -- the No Child Left Behind Act -- said they had finally reached an agreement on their bill. The new measure would lessen Washington's influence over mandatory testing of students but not get rid of the tests outright.
The House is expected to vote on the bill Thursday and the Senate sometime next week.
Not all conservatives are happy with the education overhaul. Heritage Action, an outside advocacy group, is called the agreement a "step backwards for conservative education policy" and urged Republicans to oppose it.
One item lawmakers hoped to pass before the end of the year now appears to be in trouble. Negotiators are encountering difficulty reaching a final deal to extend dozens of tax breaks for families and businesses and the talks are likely to be kicked over to next year.
Republican leaders were quick to praise GOP control of the House and Senate for the flurry of year end accomplishments, which may include passage next week of a major government spending bill and a separate GOP budget bill that would defund Planned Parenthood and repeal Obamacare, two top priorities for Republicans.
"These represent significant accomplishments for the new Congress and significant wins for the American people. After all, some pundits said Washington could never take these issues on at all," McConnell said Monday. "But we did, and now we expect to finish Congress' work on them in the coming days."
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid criticized Republicans to move the measure defunding Planned Parenthood and repealing Obamacare declaring it a "total waste of time" a "show vote" and a "charade" because Obama will veto the bill.
Nevertheless, Reid said significant progress has been made on the government funding bill and was upbeat about the prospects of passing the bill by the deadline.