Transportation Bill Gathers Bipartisan Support

The Senate is on the verge of passing a highway bill. It would spend more than $100 billion on the nation's roads in two years. The bill is expected to pass with bi-partisan support. But it's had an unusual and controversial path.

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A transportation bill is close to passing the Senate. It would authorize spending more than $100 billion on the nation's roads over two years. The bill has a chance to escape partisan battles, as well as concerns over federal debt. It's a bipartisan measure - unions like the jobs, businesses like the contracts and development, and politicians from both parties know that the projects can appeal to voters. But the bill has followed a controversial path, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Bipartisan is the world almost everyone in Capitol Hill uses to describe the Senate's highway bill. You can't get much further apart ideologically than the bill's two main sponsors. There's James Inhofe, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma, and liberal Democrat Barbara Boxer from California. She laughs when she describes the struggle to pass the highway bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: They always say that passing a law is like making sausage. It is much messier than that.

GLINTON: You might have heard about the highway bill already. You just may not have realized it. That's because the conversation about highway resurfacing began with an argument about religious freedom. Here's Missouri Republican Roy Blunt speaking in support of his amendment to the transportation bill that would have allowed employers to deny insurance coverage for things they objected to for religious reasons - most particularly, birth control.

SENATOR ROY BLUNT: Now, surely, every person in the Senate has at least one thing that, because of religious reasons, they believe is wrong to do. Do you want to be forced by the government to be a participant in that wrong thing?

GLINTON: The amendment was eventually defeated. Here's Democrat Patty Murray of Washington.

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: We defeated an amendment that would have historically taken away something that women in this country have counted for decades, and that's the ability to make their own health care choices in the privacy of their homes.

GLINTON: And once that argument was other, the Senate went on to others. There was an attempt to bring back the Keystone Pipeline. That's the pipeline the president rejected that would have delivered oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. John Thune, a Republican of South Dakota, says this is how the Senate is supposed to work.

SENATOR JOHN THUNE: So, I mean, I don't think that you can argue that Republicans have been slowing us down. Republicans have been asserting a right for people to offer amendments and get votes on amendments. And I think, in the end, the process worked. It takes a little longer than a lot of us would like to see.

GLINTON: The Senate's highway bill gives states more flexibility over how they spend federal money. It streamlines environmental regulations so projects can get built faster, and the bill seeks to get more private investment in transportation projects. On the House side, Speaker John Boehner has abandoned efforts to pass a new transportation bill out of his own chamber because of resistance from conservatives. Barbara Boxer has advice for her colleagues in the House.

BOXER: They should take up the Senate bill and pass it. They do not have time. Look, this took us so long. This is a complex bill.

GLINTON: The House speaker says he'll look at what the Senate passes. The deadline to pass a highway bill is essentially March 31st, or the government will lose the ability to spend money on highway projects, which leaves the House just two weeks to get its arguing done. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, the Capitol.

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