Congressional leaders in both parties are considering combining the stalled student loan rates bill with a massive highway bill before the end of the week, according to several sources in both parties.
It’s a way to kill two birds with one stone – Congress needs to extend the highway bill and keep student loan rates from doubling this week before breaking for a week-long July 4 recess.
In recent days, there’s been new optimism on passing a highway compromise. Aides in both parties say the odds are slightly better than 50-50. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) echoed that sentiment on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.
“I think chances today are better than 50-50 that we can get a bill done,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “But we’re still looking at Speaker [John] Boehner to help us get that over the finish line. So we will see what happens on that.”
After Boehner and Reid sat down last week with and instructed the top conference committee negotiators on the transportation bill and told them to “get it done,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) and their staffs have been in intense negotiations in order to avoid a tenth-straight extension to highway policy. Boxer and Mica have cited steady progress on finding a middle ground between the Senate’s comprehensive two-year bill and the measures included in a less extensive House bill , but both lawmakers and aides have been tight-lipped on details.
Republicans want to overhaul to the way the federal government funds roads, and some GOP aides say they might be willing to compromise on the Keystone XL pipeline if there’s significant movement on transportation policy.
Boxer said the transportation bill is on the “half-yard line” and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), another key negotiator, said he thinks he “can see the light at the end of this tunnel” of the negotiations that have dragged out for nearly two months.
One of the main proposals for paying for both the highway bill and the student loan rate extension is so-called pension smoothing – a $9.4 billion provision designed to stabilize interest rates and pension plan contributions.
Both sides would like to see a highway extension that covers more than six months, but the length of an extension is still unclear. A decision will have to be made Tuesday or early Wednesday about how to proceed.
If a deal is struck on the highway bill, it could first be passed by the House and sent to the Senate, which would add student loans and send it back to House for final approval, aides said.