The Hill: Pelosi--Highway bill would 'greatly increase' trade prospects

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats would be more likely to support a controversial trade package that was defeated on Friday if Republicans would support a long-term transportation funding package.

[Reposted from The Hill  |  Keith Laing  |  June 12, 2015]

Pelosi, who helped sink President Obama's trade package in a Friday vote by announcing her opposition in a dramatic floor speech, signaled she wants Republicans to consider a deal involving highway funding in a letter to her conference.

"The overwhelming vote today is a clear indication that it’s time for Republicans to sit down with Democrats to negotiate a trade promotion authority bill that is a better deal for the American people," Pelosi wrote.

"The prospects for passage of a such a bill will greatly increase with the passage of a robust highway bill," she continued.  "We look forward to working in a bipartisan way for a trade promotion authority bill that has better transparency, more consultation with Congress and stronger protections for Congressional priorities — especially labor rights and the environment." 

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The House voted 126-302 to reject trade adjustment assistance (TAA), a program that gives aid to workers hurt by increased trade. Because the Senate approved a broader trade package that includes fast-track authority and TAA, the House needed to approve both measures to send the full package to the White House.

House Republicans plan to try again on the TAA vote next week, but there's little reason to think it will be more successful.

Obama has lobbied lawmakers hard to support the trade package, going as far as making visits to the Congressional Baseball Game on Thursday night and Capitol Hill on Friday morning. 

Despite the hard press from Obama, most Democrats — including Pelosi — voted against TAA on Friday. 

Pelosi's effort to link the trade bill to transportation spending comes as lawmakers face a July 31 deadline for the current federal infrastructure funding measure. They are struggling with how to pay for an extension. 

Congress has been grappling with a shortfall in transportation spending that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year, and they have not passed an infrastructure package that lasts longer than two years since 2005.

The current transportation funding legislation includes about $50 billion in annual spending on road and transit projects.

The traditional source for transportation funding is revenue collected from the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax. But the tax, which has not been increased since 1993, only brings in about $34 billion per year. 

Lawmakers have turned to other parts of the federal budget to fill the gap in recent years, but transportation advocates have complained the resulting temporary patches prevent states from completing long-term construction projects.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated it will take about $100 billion to close the gap long enough to pay for a six-year transportation funding bill, which is supported by the Obama administration and transportation advocates. 

Transportation supporters have pushed for a gas tax increase. They point out the federal gas tax would be about 30 cents per gallon now if it had been indexed to inflation in 1993.

Lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump, but most Republicans have ruled an increase a nonstarter.

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