House passes surface transportation bill but the path forward is unclear

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The House Thursday passed a $715 billion, five-year surface transportation and water infrastructure bill along party lines, but its path forward is murky.

A surface transportation bill, considered must-pass legislation, will eventually be enacted in some way. But it's looking increasingly likely to be linked to broader efforts on infrastructure, which would mean an uncharted path ahead for the legislation, which has a deadline of the end of September.

The 221-201 vote is the culmination of months of partisan bickering in the lower chamber even as senators and President Joe Biden have worked hard to craft a bipartisan infrastructure plan.

The vote on final passage followed votes on a package of amendments and one individual amendment on the water sections of the bill.

What it means: Republicans threw more than 100 amendments at the bill, trying to strip out some of the more aggressive climate policies, reverse what they saw as unfair carveouts for urban areas and keep the bill more focused on roads than on rail and transit. Their efforts largely failed, compounding their frustration at their inability to negotiate the inclusion of their priorities and principles in a bill that has a tradition of bipartisan cooperation.

Meanwhile, Democrats emerge with a bill that represents a large part of their response to climate change, an existential threat that brought into sharp focus this week with an unprecedented and deadly heat wave across Western states, including House Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio's home state of Oregon, where temperatures have soared up to 40 degrees higher than normal.

The next steps for the bill are unclear. The normal path forward, an eventual conference with the Senate on a counterpart bill, has become complicated, with focus potentially shifting to merging the bill with a bipartisan compromise bill worked out over months of negotiations between Senate moderates and the White House.

A second bill, expected to move through the budget reconciliation process with only Democratic votes, is still expected to remain separate, but linked with other efforts. Many Democrats insist that the reconciliation bill move in tandem with the bipartisan bill, but Biden’s insistence on that process infuriated Republicans and nearly tanked the whole thing.

What’s next: Immediately after the passage of the bill, the House broke for the July Fourth recess. The Senate is already a week into its two-week break. The current surface transportation law expires Sept. 30, and lawmakers are even more uncomfortable than usual with the idea of an extension, given the mammoth effort that’s gone into infrastructure and climate legislation this year. Although the rest of the infrastructure plan could potentially wait, at least roads, bridges, transit and rail programs — as well as the taxes and general fund transfers that support them — need to be authorized in the next three months.

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