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GOP Presses Highway Vote

Republican leaders were forced to temporarily pull the $275 billion highway bill from the House floor Wednesday after lawmakers from several states revolted against the measure at a pair of contentious GOP Conference meetings.

After several hours of negotiations with Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) and aggrieved Members, leaders resolved Wednesday night to begin general floor debate on the measure today, with the vote on final passage occurring tonight or Friday.

Opposition to the bill centers largely on the funding formula used to determine what portion of the spending pie gets distributed to each state. Members from “donor” states — which pay more in gasoline taxes than they get back in federal spending — have long pushed to have the formula adjusted.

A looming White House veto threat and general grumbling about the perceived shortage of projects in the bill for vulnerable GOP lawmakers also contributed to discontent among rank-and-file Members, while leadership aides privately expressed frustration with the way Young has handled the whole process.

“He didn’t distribute the money properly,” complained a leadership staffer.

At the first Conference meeting Wednesday morning, Young was conspicuously absent as several lawmakers lashed out at the highway measure in unusually blunt terms.

While Young would normally be expected to attend the Conference in order to brief lawmakers on his bill, he instead left that task to Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on highways, transit and pipelines.

“Chairman Young thought Mr. Petri was the appropriate person to handle the briefing this morning,” said a Transportation Committee aide.

Leading the assault was the Florida delegation, which met Tuesday night and resolved to present a united front at the next day’s Conference. Sunshine State Members complained that their funding allocation was extremely low, despite the fact that they comprise the second largest House GOP delegation in the country behind California.

Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) was described by attendees as delivering the angriest remarks, calling the highway measure “an abortion.”

Afterwards, Shaw said his message to the leadership was, “You’re not going to get any Republican votes from Florida on this bill.”

Florida Rep. Dave Weldon (R) said he and his colleagues felt they needed to make their opposition known right from the start. “We’re concerned we’re going to continue to get rolled,” he said.

Members from Ohio, Michigan, Texas and a handful of other states have also expressed concern that they were being shortchanged.

The same complaints surfaced again at a second, hastily arranged Conference meeting Wednesday afternoon after leaders were forced to postpone the scheduled commencement of general debate on the highway measure.

Instead, Members gathered in the basement of the Capitol and, after kicking staff out of the room, recited a litany of problems with the measure, focusing on the funding formula and their concerns that many of the Republican lawmakers who needed the most help had not been taken care of, while Transportation ranking member James Oberstar (D-Minn.) had made sure that vulnerable Democrats got plenty of projects.

Young has spent the last several weeks deflecting criticism of the bill by pointing out that he has fought for a $375 billion measure and that White House pressure forced him to write a smaller bill with fewer projects for everyone.

The dispute over ratios has centered not just on the percentage of highway funding states would get back but also the size of the overall pool of projects against which those ratios are calculated. Several projects in the bill — including Interstate highways — have been deemed to be of regional or national significance and were thus not included in the state-by-state calculations.

Members from donor states grew angry once they realized how many projects had been given such a designation and how low their states’ overall share would be once those projects were factored in. Much of the negotiating Wednesday centered on how to include those high-priority items in the overall pot and then recalculate each state’s share.

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