‘Twas the night before reauthorization….?

Maybe it’s the thought of news pictures of bankers on ledges and workers with trays of apples. Those old Depression (the other one)-era images still pack a visceral punch.

Just when we thought health care reform was powerful enough to indefinitely delay reauthorization it’s possible that scary new unemployment numbers may help dislodge the blockages holding back SAFETEA-LU’s replacement. Sad that bridges falling apart and highways becoming increasingly unsafe couldn’t do that. But maybe now we are in those times that are darkest before the reauthorization dawn.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) and that committee’s ranking minority member, Jim Inhofe (R-OK), are leading a bipartisan effort to extend SAFETEA-LU for just six months, not the original Senate/Administration target of 18-months. In a letter to the majority and minority leaders of the House these two senators (and five other senators with significant clout in making this doable — three Democrats, two Republicans)  conceded that the practice of short extension after short extension (our current world) is not a wise one.  In the letter they say,” Short term extensions mean less money is available for states, and do not provide states the certainty they need to keep crucial transportation projects moving forward.” (head-shaking here from everyone who already new that).

Read the entire letter  here (from the EPW majority site) or here (from the EPW minority site). It’s the same letter, your choice of site.  But it’s also worth toggling between the two sites  to find out more about where the EPW committee and its members might be moving.

Of course not all is calm and bright in bipartisanland in the Senate and there will continue to be opposition votes to any six month extension proposal.

Movement towards a six month extension with the implied full bill arriving at that time will of course throw matches on the potentially explosive fuel tax debate. And a good thing too. Maybe unemployment is an issue powerful enough to force politicians to do the right thing rather than what they see as the electorally safe thing.

Jim Oberstar’s obstinacy might also be a factor here. The Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has drafted a new bill, has refused to back down from his goal or having SAFETEA-LU replaced by a full bill ASAP, making it harder to ignore and harder to postpone. It’s worth noting that this was also a bi-partisan move with the committee’s ranking minority member, Floridian John Mica, enthusiastically pushing the same Oberstar ASAP agenda.

Boxer has also asked the White House to help make the six month extension a reality. In her appeal she noted that short term extensions also limit state spending by essentially withholding about 30 percent of their federal funds through the bookkeeping quirk called rescission where states have had to set aside some of their Washington money over time in the name of budget flexibility. Without a full bill they now can’t use that cash.

Inhofe has also suggested that any stimulus dollars from ARRA  that will not be used in time under the terms of the act be returned and sent back out to infrastructure and defense projects. These are two areas, says the Oklahoman, that we know can actually produce jobs in a hurry, and decent jobs at that. Inhofe isn’t breaking new ground here, he’s consistent, arguing back when the stimulus package was being built that way more of the original ARRA funds should have to gone to these two areas for the same reason.

Perhaps a message is getting through. Bridges are not Republican bridges and highways are not Democrat highways (and, yes, vice-versa of course).