With time running out before Congress’s traditional August recess, a deal setting the stage for a Senate vote sometime next week on legislation (H.R. 5021) to patch the impending shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) and to continue spending on highway programs beyond Sept. 30 favors simply adopting the bill as passed by the House and sending it to President Obama, who almost certainly would sign it.

H.R. 5021 would provide additional funds and extend spending to keep highway capital and safety programs going through May 31, 2015 – an action that would, for all practical purposes, kill the chances this year for a broader, longer-term fix for the HTF. According to the Dept. of Transportation’s latest projections, the HTF will become insolvent while Congress is on its August break absent legislation to provide more money, although DOT has adopted some stopgap plans in case a fix isn’t forthcoming.

An agreement announced July 23 by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-NV) allows only four potential amendments to H.R. 5021 to be considered in this order:

  •  Sen. Ron Wyden (R-OR): Would adopt the compromise that the Senate Finance Committee approved on July 10. Like the House-passed bill, Wyden’s amendment would continue transportation funding through May 31, 2015, but it pays for the funding shortfall differently.
  • Sens. Thomas Carper (D-DE), Bob Corker (R-TN) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA): Would extend transportation funding only through Dec. 19, 2014. This measure, which the American Trucking Associations endorsed on Wednesday, would force Congress to act again on highway funding this year, keeping alive the possibility of a longer-term bill and even an increase in federal fuel taxes as proposed by Corker and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT).
  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT):  Would transfer responsibility for funding and managing surface transportation development – except for the Interstate highway system –to state and local governments and reduce the federal gasoline and diesel taxes over several years to 3.7 cents and 5 cents, respectively. The amendment is basically the text of the Transportation Empowerment Act (S. 1702), which Lee introduced late last year.
  • Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-PA): Would waive environmental reviews for repairs to roads and bridges damaged by federally recognized disasters.

Although time constraints might be enough to encourage senators simply to approve the House-passed bill, the consent agreement on the Senate’s consideration of H.R. 5021 requires 60 votes for adopting any amendment.

The Carper-Corker-Boxer amendment does have some potential Republican support and not just from Corker himself. During Finance Committee consideration of an HTF patch, three Republicans – Sens. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Michael Enzi (R-WY) and Rob Portman (R-OH) – voted for Carper’s amendment to shorten the highway program extension. If all Democrats, independents and those four Republican senators voted for the Carper-Corker-Boxer amendment, it would be only one vote short of passing.

But even those votes can’t all be assumed, and the time crunch and terms of the deal for Senate consideration still make a shorter-term extension unlikely, Chris Spear, ATA vice president and chief of legislative affairs, told Fleet Owner.

“I think it’s an uphill fight,” Spear said. “It’s a House-passed bill that has White House backing, and it seems that Reid is favoring the House bill.” Reid’s role is key because he controls the timing of when the Senate will consider the highway bill fix, Spear noted. “He’s kind of running the clock on this thing. We are going to run out of time.”

Spear pointed out that any change to the bill due to approving any one of the four amendments would mean going back to the House for approval before Congress takes its August break. “Everybody just wants to get out of town,” he said. “It’s impactful, right or wrong….Getting 60 votes is going to be tough.”