Senate approves transportation bill; how Grassley and Harkin voted

The U.S. Senate approved a new transportation authorization bill on March 14. Iowa’s senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin were both part of the 74 to 22 majority supporting the highway bill, officially called MAP-21. Republicans cast all of the no votes. In today’s polarized Senate, 74 votes looks like an overwhelming mandate, but it’s worth noting that even larger bipartisan majorities approved the four previous transportation authorization bills from 1987, 1991, 1998, and 2005.

Before final passage of MAP-21, senators voted on numerous amendments. Some were related to transportation policy, while other “non-germane” proposals were considered as part of a deal to avoid a Republican filibuster. Bleeding Heartland covered how Grassley and Harkin voted on the first batch of amendments here. Follow me after the jump for details on the rest of the Senate debate over the transportation bill. Iowa’s senators were on opposite sides most of the time.

The Transportation for America blog has been an outstanding source of information on the highway bill’s tortuous path through Congress. Stephen Lee Davis summarized all of the amendments to the Senate bill here. I also recommend Davis’ post on key differences between the Senate transportation bill and the House Republican proposal, which appears to lack the votes needed to pass. (House Speaker John Boehner has said he will bring up the Senate bill in his chamber. That vote will happen in the next two weeks, because federal transportation programs as well as federal gas and diesel taxes are due to expire on March 31.

Under a deal Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell struck last week, 30 amendments were to be considered on the Senate floor before the final vote on passage for MAP-21. Senators got through seven of those amendments on March 8. They resumed consideration of the bill on March 13.

Five “non-germane” amendments unrelated to transportation policy remained to be voted on this week. One passed by an unrecorded voice vote; it relates to offshore tax havens (“jurisdictions, financial institutions, or international transactions that are of primary money laundering concern or significantly impede United States tax enforcement”).

Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow offered an amendment to extend various tax credits, including those supporting biodiesel and wind energy production. It failed on a 49 to 49 vote (roll call). The entire Senate Republican caucus opposed this amendment, including Grassley. Almost all the Democrats supported it, including Harkin. Speaking to Radio Iowa yesterday, Harkin highlighted his displeasure with this vote.

Harkin says, “It was disappointing that the Stabenow amendment, Senator (Debbie) Stabenow from Michigan, offered an amendment to extend the wind production tax credit and the biodiesel tax credit, but it failed on almost a straight party line vote.” Iowa is home to 40 ethanol plants and 13 biodiesel plants, in addition to a host of businesses involved in wind energy production.

An ethanol plant in Nebraska announced this week it’s shutting down temporarily due to a drop in demand sparked by rising gasoline prices. Harkin says alternative energy production is vital to helping wean the U.S. off its dependence on foreign oil and this amendment was much-needed.

Harkin says, “That’s a shame because the industry is starting to close down, parts won’t be ordered, unless it’s clear that this can be put in by December 31st.” Despite the setback, he says all’s not lost. “The hope I have now is that we will try to attach the production tax credits on other legislation,” Harkin says.

“We’ll probably get it into the final bill that we’ll pass towards the end of the year. I just want to reassure everyone that one way or the other, we are going to extend the wind production tax credit and the biodiesel credit. It will be done.”

I am seeking comment from Grassley’s office on why he voted against the Stabenow amendment. I will update this post if I hear back. Yesterday Grassley sent out a press release hailing his role in proposing a new bipartisan bill to extend the wind energy production tax credit for two years.

Getting back to the transportation bill: Grassley and most of the Senate Republicans voted for Pat Roberts’ amendment that would have extended the same tax credits as Stabenow’s, but would also have forced approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline project. That amendment received just 41 votes in favor and 57 against (roll call). Harkin was one of the “nays”; he voted against a separate Keystone XL amendment last week as well.

Republican Senator Jim DeMint proposed an amendment that would have repealed several clean energy tax credits and fossil fuels subsidies. The cellulosic biofuel tax credit and the renewable energy production tax credits would have been among the casualties if this amendment had passed. Only 26 senators, all Republicans, supported this proposal. Grassley and Harkin were among the 72 no votes (roll call).

The final non-germane amendment would have promoted “the purchase and use of natural gas vehicles with an emphasis on heavy-duty and fleet vehicles.” Both Grassley and Harkin voted against this proposal, which fell short with 51 supporters and 47 opponents (roll call).

Turning to the transportation-related amendments: under the Reid-McConnell deal, 18 of these were to be considered on the Senate floor before a final vote on MAP-21. Five of those amendments never came to a vote because their sponsors withdrew them; Stephen Lee Davis posted the details here.

Another five amendments passed the Senate by unrecorded voice votes. One of them related to over-flights of national parks. Davis summarized the other four as follows:

Repairing Non-Federal-aid Bridges This would require states to dedicate a specific percentage of their highway funds to repairing bridges that are not on the National Highway System and also not located on a Federal-aid highway. […]

Buy America This would apply “Buy American” requirements to all highway and transit projects. This would ensure that a higher percentage of manufactured goods and commodities (e.g. steel, concrete, etc.) are produced within the United States. […]

Farm vehicle exemptions This would exempt certain farm vehicles, including the individual operating that vehicle, from certain requirements, including commercial drivers’ licenses, drug testing, and certifications […]

Ag transportation This amendment would exempt drivers from maximum driving and on-duty regulations for drivers of agricultural farm supplies and agricultural products during planting and harvesting periods.

The last eight transportation-related amendments did come up for roll-call votes on March 13 or 14. DeMint proposed to “transfer most responsibility for surface transportation to states and remove many regulatory requirements.” The same amendment would have ended all dedicated federal funding for public transit. Grassley was one of the 30 Republicans to vote for this particularly awful idea (roll call). Harkin was one of the 67 senators who voted it down.

A Democratic proposal to reduce federal funding for privatized roads passed by 50 votes to 47 (roll call). I don’t know why the Senate’s usual 60-vote threshold didn’t apply to that amendment. Perhaps the Reid-McConnell deal included a promise not to filibuster any of the transportation-related measures. Both Grassley and Harkin voted for this sensible idea. I don’t understand why 47 senators wanted to preserve a funding formula that sends state government money for lane-miles that have been privatized.

Republican Dan Coats proposed that states should receive from the federal Highway Trust Fund only as much funding as they contribute. That amendment went down by 28 votes to 70 (roll call). Grassley was one of its supporters; Harkin voted no.

Republican Rob Portman offered two amendments. One would have allowed state governments to opt out of the federal surface transportation program as well as “all federal highway, transit, and related environmental regulations.” Not only that, the opt-out states would be able to keep their federal gas tax money to spend on their own priorities. This idea went down by 30 votes to 68 (roll call). Grassley was one of its supporters, all Republicans. Harkin voted no.

The other Portman amendment “would allow states to permit any non-highway use in any rest area along any highway, including any commercial activity that does not impair the highway or interfere with the full use and safety of the highway.” I’m not sure what he was going for here, but senators rejected his idea by an even more lopsided 12 to 86 vote (roll call). Both Grassley and Harkin were “nays.”

Republican Bob Corker wanted to reduce discretionary spending in fiscal year 2013 by $11 billion “in order to offset the general fund transfers to the Highway Trust Fund.” That idea failed by 40 votes to 58. All 40 supporters were Republicans, including Grassley. Harkin and the rest of the Democratic caucus opposed the additional spending cuts.

Democrat Barbara Boxer offered a “sense of the Senate” resolution urging government “agencies to take advantage of procedures in current law to move expeditiously when rebuilding after a disaster.” That amendment passed easily by 76 votes to 20. Harkin was part of the majority, while Grassley was one of the 20 Republicans who opposed the resolution.

The last amendment considered before final passage of the transportation authorization bill came from Rand Paul, another favorite of the GOP’s tea party wing. His concept was to waive all environmental reviews, approvals, licensing and permit requirements for any project that was rebuilding infrastructure closed due to safety reasons. In practice, that would be tantamount to repealing all such reviews and regulations. Officials could easily declare any road or bridge needing repair closed “for safety reasons.” Fortunately, the Senate rejected Paul’s amendment by 42 votes to 54 (roll call). Grassley was in the “yes” camp, while Harkin voted no.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. All in all, the Senate version of the transportation bill could have been a lot worse. I enclose below a statement from Transportation for America Director James Corless on some of the high points in MAP-21.

I regret that Congress did not take up the transportation reauthorization bill in 2009, on schedule. The House Transportation Committee chair at that time, Jim Oberstar, had a vision for improving federal transportation priorities. In retrospect, it would have been better for Democrats to spend their political capital on a good highway bill than on the watered-down climate-change bill that passed the House but died in the Senate.

Statement from Transportation for America Director James Corless on March 14:

“The Senate today has done the nation a great service in overcoming partisan gridlock to help Americans avoid literal gridlock. On behalf of Transportation for America, I want to express our gratitude to the many senators on both sides of the aisle who listened to each other and to the American public in crafting a bill that makes important policy strides even as it maintains funding levels necessary to preserve and expand our transportation infrastructure.

MAP-21 makes several key reforms:

* For the first time, establishes national policy goals and performance measures for the federal surface transportation program, such as addressing congestion, improving access to multiple travel options, supporting domestic manufacturing and reducing impacts on the environment and adjacent communities;

* Consolidates programs and streamlines project delivery, while maintaining existing funding levels;

* Holds states accountable for the safe upkeep of our roads and bridges;

* Maintains local control over a share of funds and ensures access to funding for safer walking and bicycling;

* Includes emergency provisions to allow transit agencies to avoid service cuts and fare hikes;

* Extends the commuter benefit for transit users, commensurate with parking benefits for drivers;

* Helps communities make plans to meet the growing demand for walkable neighborhoods with access to jobs, services and public transportation;

* Ensures that federal funds support streets that are safe and complete for everyone who uses them, whether motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users or transit riders.

While there are still additional reforms that could improve the overall program, we have to commend the Senate for doing its part and creating a road map for transportation policy that can win bipartisan support. Now the House must act in similar fashion to ensure that this critical federal program does not lapse, even as the spring construction season begins. By following the Senate’s lead, House leaders can craft a bill that serves all Americans and put the federal program on a solid footing once again.”

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