This just in from CQ Today Online News, by Nathan Hurst and Niels Lesniewski In a rare moment of agreement, Senate leaders from both parties expressed optimism Tuesday that a highway bill deal can be negotiated by the end of the month and dismissed the House GOP talk of an extension as premature. “I don’t even want to talk about it now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of the possible need for another extension. “I think that we could surprise everybody and get a bill done here.” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was also upbeat. “We have until the end of the month,” said the Kentucky Republican. “And we’re hoping that they’re going to come up with a solution here.” House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, warned conferees last week that if they cannot reach agreement before the current short-term authorization (PL 112-102) lapses at the end of the month, he will offer a six-month extension that would kick the issue of surface transportation funding into the post-election session. Senate negotiators were sending responses Tuesday to the latest highway bill counteroffer by House negotiators. “I feel there is movement,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, the conference chairwoman. The current negotiations focus largely on the core transportation issues. Yet to be dealt with are demands by House Republicans to include in a conference report language forcing approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate coal ash. John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Republicans should not expect to win on either issue. “I think they still want both,” Rockefeller said. “They’re not going to get them. I think the pipeline is really off the charts, and coal ash I do too, for this bill.” Conservative House Republicans have threatened to walk away from a final version of the bill (HR 4348) that omits those provisions. But the House’s sound rejection last week of a motion by Georgia Republican Paul Broun to instruct House conferees to insist on limiting fiscal 2013 spending to the amount of money available in the Highway Trust Fund — rather than supplementing the fund with other tax revenue — may have weakened the conservative bloc’s leverage. Broun’s motion was defeated, 82-323, with 145 Republicans joining Democrats in opposition. The vote suggested there could be significant bipartisan support for a deal at a higher spending level. But a deal is not yet in hand. Reid’s proposal to leverage two pension changes to save an estimated $17.5 billion and help offset the cost of the highway bill and measures (S 2343, HR 4628) to prevent a doubling of the interest rate on federally subsidized student loans received a tepid response Tuesday from Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl. “The only problem with it is if you use it [on the student loan bill],” the Arizona Republican said, “it’s not available on the highway bill.” Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., are looking for offsets of more than $10 billion to pay for the highway legislation.

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