November 3, 2014 3:30 AM, EST

Senate Control Up for Grabs, GOP Win May Spur Road Bill

By Eugene Mulero, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Nov. 3 print edition of Transport Topics.

With the elections on Nov. 4, the fight for control of the Senate has ramped up significantly; as most pollsters say several key races are too close to call.

The nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report projects that Republicans could likely take seats from Democrats in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia.

“If they do that and hold all of their own, they will win senate control for President Obama’s final two years in office,” wrote Stuart Rothenberg on Oct. 29.

And if that happens, then Congress’ chances of advancing a long-term highway funding bill could actually improve, leading transportation experts say.

Meanwhile, the independent Cook Political Report notes that the Senate map appears to favor Republicans’ chances to claim the majority. It cites at least 10 seats,

including New Hampshire, with a strong potential for going to the Republicans.

For Republicans to gain the majority in the Senate, they would have to win at least six contests. Republicans currently are  in the minority with 45 senators.

The Democrats control the upper chamber with 53 senators. Two independents, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King, caucus with Democrats to boost their ranks.

And since either party would need to have 60 votes to advance a measure, there is growing consensus among political observers that a GOP-controlled Congress will work with the Obama administration on transportation.

“I think that there is a better opportunity than there has been in the past for a longer-term solution,” said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Ken Orski, editor and publisher of the prominent transportation newsletter Innovation News Briefs, said that while Congress will most likely not allow highway funding to lapse, “it is far from clear what form congressional action will take.”

American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves reminded industry executives in October at the federation’s annual conference that a GOP-led Senate doesn’t necessarily make things easier.

“It’s still the same core group of very diverse Republican senators that will require some sort of compromise and consensus to reach agreement on the particulars of the agenda they want to put forward,” Graves said.

Sean McNally, ATA’s vice president of public affairs, added that the federation expects lawmakers to take up annual funding bills before a Dec. 11 expiration of the latest continuing resolution funding the government. And, while the deadline for passing a new highway funding bill is not until the spring of 2015, “there is nothing that would prevent Congress from working on and passing a strong, responsible and well-funded long-term bill during a lame-duck session,” McNally said.

In August, President Obama signed into law a 10-month extension of the Highway Trust Fund, the account used by the Department of Transportation to reimburse states for certain costs related to major infrastructure projects. That temporary funding boost is set to expire in May 2015.

In recent interviews, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker sounded optimistic about collaborating with the White House. Corker suggested that a Republican Congress would be less combative, which would help ease the gridlock seen under a divided Congress.

Among incumbents to watch in the highway funding debate are:

• Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) is a self-described “friend of trucking.” The incumbent senator supports long-term transportation funding measures. He also has backed efforts this year to suspend the new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration HOS “restart” rule. But his opponent, freshman Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, has portrayed Pryor as a strong Obama administration supporter. That anti-Obama rhetoric has connected with voters in the Natural State, helping Cotton’s chances to take down Pryor. Cotton supports building the Keystone XL Pipeline, and he has vowed to limit U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority.

• Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), an incumbent who sided with Republicans to vote to suspend FMCSA’s HOS rule change. She’s pledged to back funding to expand infrastructure programs that benefit the construction and trucking sectors. Landrieu is facing fierce opposition from Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a third-term backbencher who also supports the Keystone XL Pipeline. He also has indicated he would vote to reduce the authority of federal transportation agencies.

• Sen. Pat Roberts’ (R-Kan.) re-election seemed certain, but a series of critical news articles that questioned his actual residency stirred up anti-incumbent sentiment. Roberts is in a tight race with independent candidate Greg Orman, who has pledged to alleviate the legislative gridlock in the nation’s capital. Recent polls show Orman with a slight edge in the race. If elected, Orman has not said with which party he would caucus.

• Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is expected to easily defeat his challenger in November. He has become a key player in the national trucking arena for his staunch opposition to efforts to suspend for a year FMCSA’s HOS rule change. While his challenger, Jeff Bell, has a very small chance of defeating Booker, political observers say the Republican would not differ too much on policy if he were to win.