Deja Vu Again: One-Man Senate Filibuster Imperils Federal Transport Law

A familiar script for Washington infrastructure watchers began to unfold last night on the Senate floor, as House-side resistance
to a 10-month extension of existing federal transportation law prompted
Democratic leaders to seek a quick deal on a one-month stopgap — the
fourth such short-term move in six months.

art.bunning.gi.pngSen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) (Photo: CNN)

But
one GOP senator, the notoriously irascible Jim Bunning (KY), objected
to the 30-day extension, which also would ensure continued payment of
federal unemployment benefits. When Democrats pleaded with Bunning to
drop his one-man filibuster effort, Politico heard the retiring Kentuckian offer a terse response: "Tough s–t."

If
an extension cannot be passed before the 2005 transportation law
officially expires at midnight on Sunday, the result would be a
quasi-shutdown of operations at U.S. DOT. A source at the agency told
Streetsblog Capitol Hill that all employees of the Federal Highway
Administration, save for its chief, would be sent home and states would
stop getting reimbursed for their spending on all road projects.

The
Federal Transit Administration would see a freeze of its own, the U.S.
DOT source said, with contract authority to fund local projects sitting
in limbo until Congress acts. Perhaps the most untimely delay would
occur at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA),
where regulators are ramping up their oversight efforts after the Toyota recall debacle.

"[I]t is simply unfair for one senator
to attempt to hold the Senate hostage,” Dick Durbin (D-IL), the upper chamber’s No. 2 leader, said last night in a statement.

Where does that leave Democrats? Working furiously to break through Bunning’s roadblock, even as more House members join transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) in raising objections to the Senate jobs bill that would keep existing federal programs intact until 2011.

Oberstar and about two dozen members of his panel take issue with the Senate jobs bill’s treatment of $932 million in grants
that would be spent this year as part of a 10-month extension of
existing transport law. Giving that money to states using the template
of 2009 earmarks — as the Senate jobs bill proposes — would direct
the majority of the money to four states, leaving 22 states with
nothing.

A letter sent earlier this week by 23 members of the
transportation committee asks for the grant money to be given out on a
"discretionary, competitive" basis. However, Oberstar spokesman Jim
Berard said in an interview that the chairman has offered a compromise
that would allocate the funding based on existing federal
transportation formulas.

Berard said that Oberstar would
prefer to see the $932 million allocated competitively to projects
rather than distributed by formula. But he acknowledged the reasoning
behind the Senate’s argument that applying for the funding would not
facilitate quick job creation. "If we’re not going to make it
competitive," Berard said, "at least let’s make it equitable."

At
the moment, the House appears unlikely to act on the jobs legislation
until at least next week, giving Oberstar and his panel more time to
reach agreement with senators — and heightening the drama of Bunning’s
Senate floor show.