My Way or the Highway (Bill)

Posted February 2, 2004 at 6:36pm

Talk about bad timing.

Right in the middle of a conservative GOP revolt over mounting deficits and increased government spending, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has to try to push through one of the most notoriously pork-laden bills — a $317 billion six-year highway funding measure.

To be sure, it’s been a pickle for Inhofe — himself a fiscal conservative — and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), whose aides were scrambling on Monday to make sure they had the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and keep the bill on the Senate floor this week.

In the end, GOP leaders prevailed and were able to limit debate on a motion to proceed to the bill, the first step in considering the measure.

Though the Senate can now move forward, the $375 billion House bill, which has a higher price tag and is fraught with more intraparty squabbles, is still sitting in legislative limbo with no foreseeable resolution in sight. There’s no word on when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will even mark up its version of the bill, much less when the measure will hit the House floor.

So the prognosis does not look good for getting a highway bill passed by both chambers, through conference committee, and on to the president’s desk by Feb. 29 — the day current highway funding is set to expire.

Still, the Senate appears ready to plod forward, and the man to congratulate or blame for the highway bill’s success or failure in that chamber will be Inhofe, who has yet to really flex his chairman’s muscles on the Senate floor since taking over the EPW panel in 2002.

In this first big test, Inhofe appears to be using a two-pronged strategy — one designed to scare and one designed to punish.

He has already sent up a few policy-oriented warning flares to those who oppose the bill that they could have a much more difficult decision to make the longer the bill languishes. Indeed, both House and Senate leaders have noted that they may have to simply extend current funding levels until after the election and possibly into 2005, if a highway bill can not be completed early this spring.

So, Inhofe has been telling would-be opponents that they will live to regret it if that happens when they see an even more bloated transportation bill rise from the muck next year.

“It’s only going to get worse if you leave this thing lying around,” noted one Senate GOP aide. “If we wait until next year, we’ll have to have a gas tax [increase]. We’ll have to raise taxes.”

Unlike his House counterpart, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), Inhofe has resisted efforts to raise the gas tax this year to help pay for the highway bill.

On the punishment side, Inhofe has taken a page from appropriators in threatening to cut highway funding for Senators who oppose him.

“Normally, the states that don’t obstruct this bill make out very well,” noted the Senate GOP aide ominously.

Indeed, Inhofe has already begun to put lawmakers on notice that their opposition to the bill could result in a rejiggering of the highway funding formula, wherein their states would get far less than they’re already slated to get under the measure.

With the conservative backlash on the highway bill, Inhofe is likely to find that Senate Democrats will be his most reliable allies in pushing the measure through. However, that does not mean they have not already started taking partisan shots at Republicans for pushing the bill’s consideration far past the original Sept. 30, 2003, deadline.

“Democrats regard it as a jobs bill,” said Todd Webster, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), echoing a similar GOP mantra, but adding his own spin at the end: “America has already lost 90,000 jobs as a result of the majority’s inability to get this bill done.”

The major threat facing the highway bill is the vast unknown of the amendment process, which could last through next week.

GOP leaders expect a number of energy-related proposals — most notably, incentives for the corn-based fuel additive ethanol — as well as attempts by Members who feel they didn’t get enough highway money to shift the state funding formulas. Democrats have largely retreated from threats to bring up amendments on the minimum wage, hate crimes and overtime pay regulations.

Still, if the bill gets bogged down, Frist will likely yank the measure and move on to other priorities, according to an aide.

But what does this all mean for the eight conservative GOP Senators who asked Frist in a letter last week to put off consideration of the highway bill “until its full cost is available and its full impact on the deficit can be determined”?

Well, they were obviously unsuccessful in delaying Monday’s cloture vote. And it’s uncertain what, if any, retribution the eight may face for trying to gum up the works on the bill.

But a quick check reveals that a few of them may have been thinking not only of rising deficits but also of the skimpy highway funding Inhofe’s bill would give to their states.

After all, New Hampshire, home state to letter author Sen. Judd Gregg (R) as well as signatory Sen. John Sununu (R), will get far less highway funding than most other states — just a 19 percent increase over the last highway bill, a much lower boost than the average of 35 percent.

And Pennsylvania — represented by letter signer Sen. Rick Santorum, the No. 3 guy in Senate GOP leadership, no less — would get a paltry 19.5 percent increase in highway funds.

Both the New Hampshire and Pennsylvania delegations have been vocal in their displeasure at the funding formula, according to two Senate GOP staffers. That seems understandable compared to the 46.5 percent increase that Colorado will get.

Of course, that fact may also make some wonder why Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) would risk that kind of funding by signing onto the letter, considering that only the District of Columbia has a higher percentage increase.

Other letter participants — Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) — generally hit the median in funding increases, with between 35 percent and 40 percent increases. And even though Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) signed on as well, it is unlikely Inhofe would target his own state for payback.