Columbia River Crossing

What Congressional Bipartisanship Wrought

Fallout from the government shutdown last October is having wide ranging impact on the mood and actions of federal legislators in Washington, DC. The term compromise, a dirty word since 2010, has reemerged in the lexicon of American politics as both parties try to avoid lurching from crisis to crisis.

Washington DC, after all, is a town of self-interest and even the most novice political observer could see a continuance of governance by shutdown and showdown could jeopardize the GOP's control of the House and prevent a takeover of the Senate, which now is a distinct possibility in November elections.  

Thus, the GOP had every incentive to work with Democrats to craft a bipartisan compromise on the largest spending bill approved in years. Democrats also wanted government working again, as President Obama and the Democratic Senate seek to put forward a record of accomplishment before the 2014 election.

The second term off-year election is historically bad for the party controlling the White House. Democrats fear they could lose their slim five-seat majority in the Senate and even lose seats in the House. The prospect of a united Republican Congress in 2015 has plenty of Democrats losing sleep.

CRC Still Dangling by a Thread

Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler advanced non-binding report language to condition Coast Guard approval of the Columbia River Crossing project, as both supporters and opponents try to push their point of view.The Washington legislature is in overtime. Governor Inslee has made transportation funding a go-home vote. Columbia River Crossing officials are working on mitigation deals with major employers impacted by a new I-5 bridge. But the verdict remains in doubt whether the bridge project will survive.

Bridge backers staged a rally in Olympia, ran radio spots and conducted phone banks to generate grassroots support. Inslee arguably made his most serious plea for a 10-cent gas tax increase to pay, in part, for major projects, including the CRC. A broad coalition of business, labor and civic leaders have pleaded for support in one-on-one meetings with key Washington state senators who hold the key to any funding this session.

Despite all that, the future of CRC is still a roll of the dice.

The Oregon legislature acted earlier in its 2013 session to approve $450 million for the CRC. Now it is Washington's turn to approve an equal share or risk losing earmarked federal funds for the project, including extension of light rail from Portland to Vancouver.

Brakes Still on Transportation Bill

Despite an undisputed need and the prospect of thousands of construction jobs, Congress continues to struggle with legislation that would unlock funding for highway, mass transit and bike projects across the nation.

Authorization for federal surface transportation projects expired the end of 2009. Congress is now working against a June 30 deadline of the ninth extension of that statute, known as SAFETEA-LU. 

A 47-member House-Senate conference committee, which includes Oregon Congressmen Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer and Washington Congresswoman Jamie Herrera Beutler, is only debating a 15-month reauthorization. Most of the "debate" is being handled so far by professional staffers and a handful of conservative House members, who have rained on the idea of any compromise.

Many wonder how transportation ended up in such a partisan stand-off. House Republicans attached an amendment to approve the Keystone oil pipeline. The Senate added language to create a competitive grant program to pay for downtown redevelopment, trails, bike lanes and sidewalks.

The pending reauthorization would establish a $1 billion fund to finance projects of national significance, such as the new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. But even if the reauthorization manages to pass, Congress hasn't agreed on a revenue source for the mega-project fund. House GOP conservatives have voiced dissatisfaction that there is any funding in the bill.

Major interest groups are pressuring Congress to act, but there are mixed views inside Capitol Hill political caucuses. Some think it is better to extend the current transportation statute for the 10th time and angle for a much better bill in the next Congress. There are different views on what constitutes a better bill.