U.S. Senate OKs highway bill

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas stands to receive more than $1 billion in highway funds from the $109 billion highway authorization bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters shortly before the bill passed.

Pryor also bemoaned the lack of progress in the Senate on confirming a number of federal judicial nominees, including Kris Baker of Arkansas, but Senate leaders announced later in the day that a deal had been reached to hold votes on the nominees.

The highway bill passed by a vote of 74-22. It was co-authored by Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, its main sponsor, and Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.

“It does create a lot of jobs, but also we need to look at it as a huge investment in our future,” Pryor said. “In having good roads and having good transportation, it just opens up opportunity for decades to come.”

Under the bill, Arkansas stands to receive $1.05 billion over two years. Since earmarks for specific projects are no longer allowed, the state Highway and Transportation Department will have discretion over where to allocate the federal dollars.

Provisions that Pryor said he was able to get incorporated into the bill call for updating National Highway Traffic Safety Administration programs on distracted drivers, creating a national database of the names of commercial truck drivers who have tested positive for drugs and requiring commercial trucks to be equipped with electronic logbooks.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said in an interview the highway bill will help the state highway department plan for the future.

“In order to build a significant infrastructure, you need a long-term bill, and so this will give them some surety. They’ll know that they’ll have a dedicated stream of income for the next couple of years,” he said.

Boozman said he will work with House members to get the bill merged with a House highway bill. He called the bipartisan nature of the Senate bill “a good sign.”

“I think that the realization is that we can all work together and get some things done,” he said.

Pryor also complained Wednesday of the backlog of federal judicial nominees awaiting Senate confirmation.

At the time Pryor spoke to reporters, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was planning to force votes on 17 nominees later in the day, but Reid dropped the plan after an agreement was reached to allow 14 nominees to receive confirmation votes by May 7.

“It’s not technically true to say all these judges are being filibustered by the Republicans,” Pryor said before the agreement was announced. “Maybe some are, but what is probably more technically true is the Republicans just will not agree to have them placed on the calendar for votes. Some of these go back to mid-to-late last year when they came out of the (Senate) Judiciary Committee.”

Little Rock lawyer Kris Baker, who has been nominated by President Obama to be a federal judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas, is among the nominees awaiting confirmation, though she has only been waiting about a month since clearing the judiciary committee.

Boozman, who supports Baker’s nomination, said about half of the nominees have been held up in the judiciary committee, which is controlled by Democrats. He also said Obama has been slow in naming nominees.

“There’s 83 judicial vacancies and the administration has only made 39 nominations, so there’s 44 vacancies with no action at all by the president,” he said. “This is not the fault of Republicans.”