Restart rollback among ‘higher level’ items in budget talks – stay tuned

This Who’s Who gallery, originally posted in June, features comments from key supporters and opponents of the hours-of-service restart suspension.

A suspension of the restart provisions in the hours-of-service rule is among the more controversial riders still being negotiated, but time is running out as the lame duck Congress develops its funding plan for the federal government.

The final form and language of that plan is expected to be completed by the House Friday evening and published Monday. Whether the restart provision makes it, and whether the package can pass in both the House and Senate and be signed by President Obama depends on a number of factors, most of which have little to do with trucking, Capitol Hill insiders say.

As of Friday morning, the word of the day is “cromnibus,” a CR (continuing resolution) for the Dept. of Homeland Security combined with an omnibus spending package to fund the operation of the rest of the federal government, including the Transportation Department.

This hybrid approach is a compromise to appease the most conservative House Republicans who want to fight Obama on his recently announced immigration reforms. A short-term extension of DHS funding will allow Congress to more fully debate the immigration matter next year while fully funding the rest of the government for 2015 – and avert a shutdown.

Congress is dealing with the matter in a lame duck session because it couldn’t get its act together and pass the department-focused budgets in a timely fashion earlier in the year. DOT, for example, is funded along with the Housing Department by the annual THUD appropriation.

And it was into the Senate’s THUD bill that Sen. Susan Collins inserted language to suspend certain parts of 2013’s changes to HOS rule dealing with the restart, pending study of the actual impact on safety and efficiency of the rule. After gaining bipartisan committee support, the Collins amendment faced a floor fight before the entire THUD package was stalled by procedural squabbling between party leadership.

This week the HOS language is again the focus of debate “at the highest level” – meaning that it’s too controversial to be decided by the congressional staff who prepare the basics of the package,  or even by just a couple of committee members, a source familiar with the negotiations tells CCJ.

“The fact that it got kicked up is to that level is really not surprising,” the source says. “We’ve not gotten any clear direction one way or another. But you’ve got a top Republican on the Senate side who has ownership of the language and that’s really strong – that only helps the language stand.”

Much of the pushback comes from highway safety advocates, truck crash victims and organized labor, who have rolled out the same arguments they used during the Senate debate in June.  The coalition includes Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Parents Against Tired Truckers and the Teamsters, among others. They wrote to Congress this week to oppose the Collins language and other possible amendments relating to highway safety.

“While Congress may call these ‘riders,’ they are actually ‘assaults’ on truck safety,” the letter says. “As the 113th Congress nears conclusion, trucking and shipping interests are relentlessly pushing an anti-safety agenda that is dangerous, deadly and unprecedented in its attack on public health and safety.”

The proposed change to the HOS rule has been portrayed as a “minor tweak,” but in fact it is a major change that will significantly increase driver hours, the letter contends. The coalition again cites driver fatigue and the high profile accident involving comedian Tracy Morgan, also from last June as the amendment was being considered in the Senate.

The groups also oppose changes in truck size and weight limits, but sources suggest such provisions will not make it into the omnibus spending bill, but more likely will part of the next highway bill.

In a letter Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the organizations pressed the Obama administration to veto any spending bill that will result in more highway deaths and injuries.

Indeed, “the bigger issue is whether [the restart suspension] is in a vehicle that can pass the Senate and ultimately get signed by the president,” suggests another Washington source with trucking connections.

Of course, trucking isn’t the only industry with specific riders tucked away in the massive bill – and any of these could prompt further delay, or even a veto. And that’s to say nothing of major, partisan disagreements. We should know more early next week. Stay tuned.