UPDATE: MSNBC reports that the cloture vote on Nelson (D-NE) / Collins (R-ME) amendment just passed 61-36 in the Senate. This development suggests that both Sen. Collins and Sen. Snowe (both R-ME) and Sen. Specter (R-PA) have voted in favor and, makes is very likely that the version discussed below will reach cloture and pass on Tuesday. Note that there are multiple numbers describing the dollar volume of the bill, perhaps because of varying estimates of costs related to tax cuts and assistance for the unemployed.
UPDATE 2: As expected, the Senate has passed its version of the stimulus bill with the help of yes votes from Sen. Collins (R-ME), Sen. Snowe (R-ME) and Sen. Specter (R-PA). CNN previews the compromises both houses will have now have to make in conference.
The Huffington Post has published a summary of the compromise on the stimulus bill as hammered out by centrist Republicans and Democrats to secure a filibuster-proof majority in the crucial vote expected on Tuesday, Feb 10. With amendments introduced and voted on in record speed, it has been difficult for Senators - never mind the general public - to ascertain the precise status of the bill over the past few days.
For the purposes of this blog, the most relevant section is the one on transportation. All line items are limited to capital projects, the numbers in parentheses refer to the amount in the amended House version as received by the Senate.
- $27.06b for highways (was $30b)
- $8.4b for transit (was $7.5b)
- $5.5b for general-purpose grants (was $2.5b)
- $1.3b for commercial aviation (was $3b)
- $2.0b for high speed rail (was $2b for fixed guideways)
- $250m to states for intercity rail (was $300m)
- $850m for Amtrak (was $800m)
- $160m for small shipyards + ferry services (was $0)
- $830m for roads on public lands (was $750m, but as part of $30b highway grant)
Total: $47.34b or 6% of the entire $780b Senate version (was $46.1b or 5.6% of the entire $819b House version)
Readers of this blog will be pleased to see that the Senate version targets $2b specifically at high speed rail in the corridors designated by DOT, especially since the California project is currently the only one with a completed program EIR/EIS. However, as currently defined by DOT, "high speed" translates to a minimum top speed of just 90mph. Note that the House version permits applications for arbitrary corridors and lower-speed technologies (e.g. commuter rail, subways, light rail, streetcars, guided buses, unmanned people movers, monorail systems, even urban gondolas).
Unfortunately, it's not entirely clear in either version into which funding category e.g. Amtrak California, a joint venture between Amtrak and Caltrans, would fall. California HSR is arguably also intercity rail, but I don't think that's what Senators had in mind. Similarly unclear is the distance at which local transit ends and intercity rail begins or, how it relates to the size of the state(s) requesting funding. In California, consider e.g. the cases of BART, Caltrain, Metrolink, NCTD and SMART. Comparable systems might well be interstate services in parts of New England! A paragraph clarifying these demarcations, if only by reference to existing DOT definitions, would be helpful.
All told, the Senate version actually increases transportation spending by around 3% relative to the House version, in spite of cutting the total bill volume by almost 5%. In particular, some funding has been shifted away from oil-intensive highways and aviation and toward fuel-efficient transit.
Also greatly increased is the level of general-purpose grants that DOT, i.e. the Obama administration, may award to any mode of transportation in an as-yet ill-defined competitive bidding process. The general policy direction of the administration appears to be in favor of weaning the nation off oil, but that may be superseded by a need to spend money as quickly as possible and/or to reward the Republican Senators that are breaking ranks. Both Maine and Pennsylvania have plenty of existing infrastructure, e.g. road bridges, in urgent need of repair. Once the stimulus bill is out of the way, the President may well seek to secure ongoing support from these centrist Republicans by negotiating a formal European-style coalition agreement with them - plus Sen. Reid and Speaker Pelosi - through end of year 2010.
If the Senate passes this latest version of the stimulus bill as-is, it will still have to be reconciled with the engrossed House version in conference. IMHO, given the razor-thin majority in the Senate, it is likely that House Democrats - after some huffing and puffing - will swallow their pride and make do with relatively minor last-minute adjustments so the President can sign the bill into law as soon as possible.
As a whole, it is arguably very much imperfect, especially in its emphasis on tax cuts over emergency assistance to states whose tax base has collapsed. Unfortunately, politics is the art of the possible. By including generous tax cuts from the outset, the President denied the GOP the opportunity to be seen exercising what little power it has left. It doesn't matter that those cuts were a key campaign promise, since the President had been careful not to specify when it would be kept. Thus, the GOP could have claimed to have forced him to concede them earlier than he might have wanted to and, pretended that this morsel of fake red meat constituted the basis of true bipartisanship. "No drama Obama" simply forgot that for opposition Senators, grandstanding is the point. They need their 15 minutes of C-SPAN fame.
Meanwhile, most state constitutions - including California's - require balanced budgets. This effectively forces Governors to act as Mini-Hoovers, furloughing or letting go state employees, thus reducing their ability to prop up an economy in desperate need of consumer demand. It would be prudent to restore the $40 billion in aid to states that was cut, but with strings attached - especially for the state of California, whose deficit dwarfs that of the other 49. For example, there could be a requirement that balanced state budgets be passed with simple majorities going forward, subject only to a gubernatorial veto. If compliance requires a change to the state constitution, so be it.
Alternatively, the stimulus bill could be amended to authorize the Federal Reserve to buy a certain dollar volume of long-term state bonds at reasonable rates, e.g. those prevailing prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers (i.e. based on a credit rating of A+ rather than A for California). At a recipient state's request, the authorization would waive repayments in 2009 and 2010, with interest accruing in the interim. With regard to capital investments, only the difference between the interest offered by the Federal Reserve and that available on the market would represent a federal contribution.
Fortunately, the above comparison suggests the House will probably not seek to reduce spending on transportation projects, which enjoys broad support from the electorate. Indeed, it is theoretically possible that an amendment co-sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to add another $25 billion for highway, water and transit infrastructure could be incorporated into the bill in conference, especially if attempts to reverse cuts in general aid to states should fail. The amendment had received 58 votes in the Senate, just two shy of the number needed to overcome a Senate filibuster on the issue.