Here We Go: Senate Set to Start Highway Bill Votes Thursday

After weeks of behind-the-scenes brinksmanship, the Senate is finally set to begin casting votes on its highway and infrastructure bill Thursday.

Republicans and Democrats reached an agreement late Wednesday on a list of 30 amendments to the two-year, $109 billion transportation bill. Senate aides said they expect the body to begin voting in the morning Thursday and continue throughout the day, a marathon voting session known around the Senate as a "vote-a-rama."

"We can finish this tomorrow. It's a huge job," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said while announcing the agreement on Wednesday night on the Senate floor. Democratic aides later clarified that the amendment list was long enough that a vote on final approval of the highway bill would likely get pushed to next Tuesday.

The Senate won't vote on substantive transportation amendments right away. A list of controversial amendments on unrelated issues is due up first, including expansions in offshore drilling, boiler regulations, offshore tax havens and lowering of corporate tax rates. The Senate is also set to vote on a pair of amendments pushing the Obama Administration on its politically-charged decision to delay construction of parts of the Keystone XL pipeline.

After that, substantive, or "germain" amendments are set to follow on a range of transportation issues, including toll road rules, bridge construction and an amendment sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would do away with a ban on restaurants at interstate rest stops.

Final passage Tuesday would see the Senate approve its version of the highway bill while the House is out of town on a week-long recess with its own version of the bill very much in doubt. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made a last-ditch effort Wednesday to sell skeptical conservatives on a version of a five-year, $260 billion highway bill. The Senate's bill, which is bipartisan but unpopular with many House Republicans, was presented as the bill of last resort if House members can't reach an agreement on a bill of their own.

The law governing the Highway Trust Fund expires at the end of the month, and with House Republicans stalled and the body out of town next week, it is looking increasing unlikely that Congress will pass a final bill by the deadline. That would require lawmakers to pass a temporary extension until a broader agreement can be reached, or let highway programs shut down.

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