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Transportation To Take the Floor Next Week

by Jana Ritter - Published: 7/19/2013

Democratic leaders said a $108 billion transportation bill would be one of the items moved to the floor next week. It is among the 12 annual appropriations bills most commonly associated with generating jobs, given its investments in infrastructure projects, and Democratic leaders appear to have chosen it to air their differences with the GOP-controlled House.

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Debate comes amid a continuing impasse between the GOP-controlled House, Democratic Senate and the White House. The move to advance the transportation and housing bill came as the senate Appropriations panel approved two more domestic measures, a $46 billion bill to fund the Homeland Security Department and a $52 billion measure for the Justice and Commerce departments and science-related agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Senate Democrats are counting on the help of a handful of pragmatic-minded Senate Republicans to advance the spending bills even though they total more than $90 billion more than those drafted by House Republicans.

There are a handful of bills, like the homeland security measure and bills funding the Veterans Administration and the Pentagon, where the differences between the House and Senate are small enough that they could probably be passed into law despite the broader impasse in Washington. But Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., want a budget pact first and are focusing on passing domestic spending bills favored by Democrats.

There's plenty of incentive for both sides to compromise. House GOP defense hawks are upset by steep cuts to the Pentagon and a move by House leaders to shift more than $40 billion from domestic programs to defense would be negated by a new round of sequestration next year. The Democratic Senate bills, meanwhile, would trigger a wave of sequestration cuts too that would erase the tens of billions of dollars of promises made in those bills.

Reid vowed Democrats would fight to protect domestic programs cherished by the party. But with time running out before the Oct. 1 start of the 2014 budget year, it'll take a stopgap measure to prevent a government shutdown, and talks have just begun between Reid and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

The $108 billion measure coming to the Senate floor next week blends $54 billion in so-called discretionary spending — money under the Appropriations Committee's direct control — with an almost equal amount of already-enacted funding from highway and rail trust funds. It restores deep cuts proposed by House Republicans to community development block grants to local governments, preserves housing vouchers for the poor, and boosts mass transit funding well above House GOP levels.

The House may take up its very different view of the transportation measure next week, too.

"I think the contrast between our bill and the House bill will make it very clear to the American people that Republicans need to let us start a budget conference, work with us to replace sequestration with more responsible and sustainable deficit reduction, and help us put American families and our economy first," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.