Senate, House Far Apart on Transportation Appropriations Bill
An appropriations bill funding the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments passed a procedural test in the U.S. Senate this week in surprisingly bipartisan fashion. Nineteen Republicans broke ranks to add to the 73 to 26 vote tally to move the bill forward. The bill is the first in a series of 12 appropriations bills that the Senate has the responsibility of passing. The Senate’s $54 billion funding level is higher than the President’s request, something the President has praised, but more importantly it is also significantly higher than the House version of the bill, which only provides $44 billion. The President has promised to veto the House version if it reaches his desk.
The THUD bill, as it is affectionately known, is responsible for funding a number of the transportation discretionary programs of key interest to states including parts of the Community Development Block Grant Program, the transit program, the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) competitive grant program and the bridge repair grant program.
The House and Senate versions of the bill show different priorities and strategies for building and connecting American communities. Each version would present states with different challenges and opportunities for building new infrastructure and fixing what already exists. In general, the House bill is significantly less supportive of passenger rail expansion and operation. The Senate version also includes more money for grant programs like the popular TIGER program, a specific category of grants for bridge repair and more money for the transit capital seeding program known as New Starts.
In the event that the two chambers cannot agree on a single bill, it is likely that Congress will use a continuing resolution (CR) to continue the 2013 funding levels. The FY2013 bill spent $51 billion. But many programs would be subject to additional sequestration cuts 15 days after Congress adjourns for the year in the event Congress chooses to pass a CR. The cuts required by the sequester were never meant to be the most nimble and deliberate policy making tools but the funding level for most programs would actually be higher after a CR than with the House version of the bill.
Some in the Senate think the two versions of the bill will be reconciled in conference. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, worked closely with Democrats on the bill’s construction and thinks that the bill has a chance. In referring to the $10 billion gap between the House and the Senate, Collins said, "I would bet that when we negotiate with the House, the allocation of funds will end up somewhere in the middle."
Whether the bills are joined in a conference committee or Congress chooses to use a CR to fund these agencies, we have a likely spectrum of the possible final funding levels in this conversation. The Senate began its debate on Wednesday July 24th and the House is expected to debate it version of the bill late next week. States will be watching closely to see where things land.