Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
Full Business Meeting
Tuesday 7/21/09, 10:00am, Russell 253
3) An Act to Extend the Programs of SAFETEA-LU for an 18-Month Period (aka surface transportation funding extension – a reauthorization postponement the House has strongly opposed, but the Administration supports with some caveats ). There is no formal bill number for this measure as of yet.
- Five noncontroversial nominations, which were released to the full Senate without any discussion. All five have since been confirmed:
1) Polly Trottenberg, to be Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy of the United States Department of Transportation
2) Deborah A.P. Hersman, to be Chairman and Member (Reappointment) of the National Transportation Safety Board
3) Richard A. Lidinsky, Jr., to be Commissioner of the Federal Maritime Commission (PN 623)
4) Meredith Attwell Baker, to be a Member of the Federal Communications Commission
5) Mignon L. Clyburn , to be a Member of the Federal Communications Commission
The major topic of this markup session was the FAA reauthorization package, which is a key responsibility of the Senate Commerce committee. While jurisdiction over surface transportation is shared with a number of committees, most notably Environment & Public Works, jurisdiction over air transportation seems to fall almost exclusively to this committee. This measure received most of the time and attention of the committee members in this meeting, and one amendment in particular generated a considerable amount of controversy.
This was one of the stranger committee business meetings I have seen. I also spoke with one veteran lobbyist who had never seen a markup conducted in the particular way this one was. Perhaps this is a normal style for Commerce under Rockefeller, but it was clear that the process confused many of the folks in the room, including a few Senators.
The hearing started normally. Chairman Rockefeller gave a 5-minute opening statement in which he outlined the day’s agenda, and made clear that the FAA authorization would be the main point of focus. He thanked the Senators who played a key role in crafting that bill – Hutchison, Dorgan, DeMint and himself. He stated there is an urgent need to modernize the air transport system – we are currently behind Mongolia. He also declared his support for the SAFETEA-LU extension, mainly on the grounds that Majority Leader Reid had asked for a “clean” bill out of all relevant committees.
Ranking Member Hutchison also supports the FAA reauthorization as a whole, but is concerned about a few provisions. Unfortunately I did not catch exactly what those provisions were. She is less supportive of an 18-month surface transportation extension, believing it is both too long to delay and that certain trucking and safety concerns should be addressed immediately. She did note the need to replenish the almost-insolvent highway trust fund, but openly wondered whether the HTF is still even necessary. As a donor state (albeit far less than many other states), Texas should not have to subsidize other states, and states should be able to take care of their own road maintenance needs.
Senator Dorgan, the chair of the Aviation Subcommittee, lauded the new reauthorization plan. It is a 2-year authorization to allow time for the new FAA administrators to implement basic and needed initial reforms. His favorite new initiative was a move to a new GPS tracking system called NextGen. However, many good provisions were left out because of the need to pass a bill with broad bipartisan support and little controversy.
Senator DeMint basically concurred with Dorgan’s sentiments and was happy they were able to craft a bill without much controversy or acrimony.
At this point, the hearing started to deviate from the norm. Hutchison moved to report ALL matters before the committee favorably, including the FAA bill as amended
. The motion was approved by unanimous consent, and the proceeding voice vote then passed with no objections. So that was that, hearing over, right?
Well, not quite. The as amended
part had not been dealt with yet. In other words, they passed the bills and nominees out of committee with the understanding that amendments would be considered immediately afterwards and included in the committee report. Only then did they tackle amendments to the FAA reauthorization bill.
At that point, Rockefeller gave a quick overview of the bill and announced the amendments to be considered, mostly en masse. He announced 13 member amendments that were to be voted on, and brought them all to a vote by unanimous consent. All 13 amendments were then approved with a single voice vote. Rockefeller then brought up 11 more amendments that had been modified by committee leadership/staff, and those were also approved in a single vote. Now that’s efficiency. Noting the somewhat confused audience of mostly lobbyists and entry-level Hill staffers, Chairman Rockefeller took a step back for a minute and acknowledged that they had worked everything out behind the scenes. He sort of apologized for conducting business in such a non-transparent manner.
The debate turned to the main issue of the day, Sen. Cantwell’s amendment to increase the number of takeoff/landing slots in Reagan National Airport. Cantwell gave an opening statement in which she basically claimed Western states were being punished by not having enough access to this very convenient airport. Sen. Ensign had a counterproposal that would allow for trading of slots among airlines in different metro-region airports. He liked his version because it allowed for a more market-oriented approach. Sen. Warner, whose state plays host to the airport in question, introduced a modification to Cantwell’s amendment that would make it more accommodating to Virginians in the path of the potentially expanded airport. Boxer chimed in to say she worked with Ensign on his amendment, but will support all amendments that come before the committee. Dorgan stated that he chose not to address the issue in the reauthorization language because it was controversial, but he would support the Cantwell/Warner amendment. Ensign announced he would oppose Cantwell/Warner in hopes of reaching a compromise before the full Senate, but would pull his own amendments from immediate consideration. Lautenberg chimed in on his own pet issue by saying they wouldn’t need more plane slots if there was a nationwide high speed rail network.
Finally, they went to a roll call on the Cantwell amendment, as modified by Warner. The bill went roughly down partisan lines, although a few Democrats (Kerry, Klobuchar and Pryor) and Republican Johanns defected. As it turned out, those two net Democratic defections were enough to defeat the amendment, 12-13. A couple votes switched at the last minute, which complicated matters; Kerry’s switch from yea to nay (by proxy) in particular was an intriguing one.
As the committee clerk announced the results of the vote, a murmur arose among the audience, which seemed to have expected passage. Rockefeller immediately proceeded to announce a roll call vote for the original underlying Cantwell amendment, at which point Ensign all but cut him off midsentence. He angrily expressed an impression that the Cantwell amendment had just been defeated, which meant there was no reason to have another vote on the same measure. This touched off a somewhat disjointed stretch in which various senators attempted to figure out exactly what they had just voted on. Since Rockefeller ultimately wields the authority to make such decisions, he maintained that Cantwell had the ability to request a vote on the underlying amendment without the Warner modification. He suggested they have a voice vote as a compromise, and everyone including Cantwell seemed to settle on that idea. They did so, and although the yeas and nays sounded quite similar in volume (probably reflective of another very close vote), Rockefeller immediately proclaimed that it sounded to him that the noes won, and that was that. Cantwell maintained that she would continue fighting for her measure on the Senate floor.
Warner did have an amendment to the surface transit bill related to data collection and performance evaluation, but he pulled it from consideration given the Chair’s desire for a “clean” extension. At that point, it was all over but the closing statements.
My general takeaway was one of puzzlement. It was unclear whether the intention of leadership was for the Cantwell amendment to fail or whether they had no general position. These sort of situations are hard to read because one never knows what sort of backroom dealing is at play to influence the vote decisions of individual members. Overall, this markup was a valuable reminder that Senate process is often very difficult to understand for outside observers, even those who are familiar with the issues at hand.
Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Chair
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Ranking Member
Mark Begich (D-AK)
Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Sam Brownback (R-KS)
Maria Cantwell (D-WA)
Jim DeMint (R-SC), Aviation Subcommittee Ranking Member
Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Aviation Subcommittee Chair
John Ensign (R-NV)
Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
Mike Johanns (R-NE)
Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Mel Martinez (R-FL)
Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
Bill Nelson (D-FL)
Mark Pryor (D-AR)
Olympia Snowe (R-ME)
Tom Udall (D-NM)
David Vitter (R-LA)
Mark Warner (D-VA)
Roger Wicker (R-MS)
This post was written by GovTrack writer Jeremy Koulish.