The writing is pretty much on the wall. Lawmakers may say they're holding out for a conference transportation bill, but, let's face it, June 30th is fast approaching with no sign of a coming compromise. Senate Democrats are calling on House Republicans to pass a bill; House Republicans accuse Senate Democrats of being unwilling to negotiate. No one's suggesting a bill is imminent.
One of the key hurdles to compromise, House Republicans say, is finding common ground on their environmental streamlining measures.
"On five of our priorities, we have offered a counterproposal.... On three of them it's been a flat 'no,' and on a couple of the others, it's been a very, very minor movement," Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., a conferee, said last week.
Some of those priorities, such as adjusting the trigger for environmental reviews of projects or creating hard deadlines for the reviews, are just matters of ideology. But others seem to show promise for compromise. Republicans want to let states work on projects before a review is complete, with the promise to abandon or adjust the project should it fail to meet federal standards. They also want to create categorical exemptions for certain types of projects--replacing a broken bridge with a copy, for example--which Oregon Democrat and conferee Rep. Peter DeFazio in April suggested there may be some common ground on. A project aimed at putting streetcar tracks into paved roads, for example, should be streamlined, he said: "We're going to have fewer cars on that road. Why would we have to spend a lot of time and money studying it?"
Critics will argue that environmental reviews are not the only--or biggest--reason for delayed projects, but, if they're a sticking point for House Republicans and there is some common ground, why not pursue a compromise for the sake of a larger bill? Are there other common-sense streamlining proposals? What measures could Senate Democrats offer as an olive branch, as a move toward a deal that doesn't abandon their principles? Should they bother? Or are there serious downsides to all of the streamlining proposals?