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Funding highway bill atop Rep. Shuster’s agenda

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Salena Zito | Trib Total Media
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Everett
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Salena Zito | Trib Total Media
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Everett

EVERETT — After years of obstruction, narrowly averted crises and neglected targets, U.S. House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster expects a multiyear highway bill to clear Congress for the first time in a decade.

“We plan on having a bill finalized by Nov. 30 so it can get final approval from both houses before the Friday deadline,” Shuster said while sitting in Kelly’s Scenic View, a tiny diner below the Bedford County mountain that hosts his family farm.

If the measure passes and President Obama signs it, Shuster intends “to bring all of the stakeholders together and take on the financing issue, so we don’t have to look for funding like children searching for coins behind the cushions and under tables.”

Until now, Congress has struggled to agree on what Shuster considers one of its most important roles: infrastructure funding.

“Our No. 1 role is national security; our No. 2 role is dealing with interstate commerce,” the Republican congressman said. “Those two are intrinsically tied together to build the transportation system that protects the country.”

His legislation uses a funding patchwork that includes the Highway Trust Fund, underwritten by federal gasoline taxes.

“Pay-fors” — his term for financing projects not covered by taxes — are being negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee, he said. He declined to discuss specifics until both houses agree on terms.

From guinea pig to piñata

According to Shuster, House Speaker Paul Ryan and his staff said that “debating my highway bill would be the guinea pig” for new House rules.

Ryan became speaker after the Freedom Caucus — about 40 hard-line House Republicans — revolted against the tight control exercised by his predecessor, Ohio Republican John Boehner.

The Wisconsin Republican won support from some of the caucus’ dissidents by pledging to run the House more “inclusively,” in part by allowing unlimited amendments to bills.

House members proposed more than 300 amendments to Shuster’s legislation, the first to move through the chamber under Ryan’s operating rules. The experience led Shuster to tell Ryan that he “felt more like a piñata than a guinea pig.”

Yet after more than 40 amendments were adopted over three days, Shuster put together an impressive 363 votes for the measure in the House, making him the first big winner under the new rules.

A similar bill passed the Senate; the conference committee is reconciling the versions.

Shuster, 54, of Everett has represented Pennsylvania’s 9th Congressional District since his father retired from the seat in 2001. He has chaired the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for nearly three years.

Dressed in a blue plaid shirt and navy parka, the man on the verge of passing perhaps the most important bill of the 114th Congress blends in with the diner’s other customers as they sip coffee and devour coconut cream pie.

Passing such big legislation is not easy, he explained. Nor will be an upcoming omnibus bill to fund the government: “It’s always a battle, but you can’t expect to get everything you want. None of us get that in life. But you work together to get things passed because it’s what is right for the country.”

The highway bill is not perfect, he conceded. He is not thrilled by its funding, or that it is effective for five years instead of six. But he is pleased with some of its reforms, such as streamlining how state and local governments fix infrastructure issues.

Shutdown unlikely

Shuster said a bipartisan budget agreement in October should restrain some of the fiscal fighting between the president and congressional Republicans in December over the omnibus budget.

“Oh, it’s going to be a wild two weeks, but it will be productive,” the congressman said of the often strident legislative process.

Final approval of the highway bill will be “a good indicator we can do the big, hard stuff,” he said. “… I believe that no one wants to shut the government down. It’s not a good thing to do for the country.”

The temporary deal from October increased federal spending by $30 billion, but how that money will be spent is not specified. That and other details must be resolved by Dec. 11 to keep the government operating.

Plenty of partisan disagreements could escalate into a government shutdown, Shuster acknowledged, including such issues as reducing environmental regulations, funding Planned Parenthood, rolling back financial regulations and defunding resettlement programs for Syrian war refugees.

Those in the majority can get a good bit of what they want, Shuster said, “but we can’t get 100 percent.”

“Like the highway bill, we will get 60 to 70 percent of what we want. But there are things I could not get in (that bill) because I had to deal with the Senate, Democrats, conservative Republicans and suburban moderate Republicans,” he said.

“You have to figure out the sweet spot and keep moving forward.”

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at [email protected].

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