Susan Walsh/AP file photo

Don’t Count on Higher Mass Transit Benefits Anytime Soon

Senate Republicans block bill that would have restored the benefits to their 2013 levels and privatized tax debt collection.

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a vote on legislation that includes language to restore mass transit benefits to their 2013 levels, citing an inability to offer amendments to the bipartisan bill.

The Senate Finance Committee last month unanimously approved the Expiring Provisions Improvement Reform and Efficiency (EXPIRE) Act, a large package to extend various tax credits for two years. The package included a provision that would have allowed federal employees to receive up to $250 each month for their mass transit costs.

The mass transit benefit dropped from $245 to $130 on Jan. 1, after a provision in the American Taxpayer Relief Act -- also known as the fiscal cliff deal -- expired. The parking benefit, however, actually increased by $5 to $250 for 2014. The Finance Committee-backed bill would have brought the mass transit benefit back up to the level of the parking perk, and the change would have been retroactive to the beginning of the year.

When Republicans filibustered the bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered to let Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, work out an agreement for offering amendments if the bill cleared the 60-vote threshold. Instead, the bill failed, with only 53 senators -- just one of whom was a Republican -- voting to end debate on the measure.

With an election right around the corner, the issue is likely to be tabled until November. Congress could still elect to restore the subsidy retroactively, however, which would not be without precedent. A similar gap existed between the parking and mass transit benefits in 2012, but it was fixed by the fiscal cliff deal.

While federal employee groups lobbied in favor of restoring the higher transit benefit, they were opposed to another element of the bill: outsourcing the collection of tax debt. This work is currently done by Internal Revenue Service employees.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who was the Senate’s strongest advocate in restoring the mass transit benefit, offered an amendment during the EXPIRE Act’s markup to require private-sector contractors to take over tax collection responsibilities. Congress authorized the Treasury Department to contract out the task of recouping unpaid tax bills in 2006, but the agency phased out the program in 2009.

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