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What ‘Nuclear’ Option? Highway Bill Keeps On Truckin’

Senate Republican leaders blinked on Friday and decided not to pursue the “nuclear” option on judicial filibusters this week, opting instead to try to keep bipartisanship alive for at least another two weeks by tackling the $284 billion highway-funding bill.

But lest social conservatives start to feel that Congressional Republicans do not have their proverbial back, the House will be serving up some red meat this week when it takes up a bill, either Wednesday or Thursday, to prohibit taking minors across state lines for an abortion procedure.[IMGCAP(1)]

Granted, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) could still interrupt debate on the six-year highway bill with a showdown over Senate Democrats’ use of the filibuster to block 10 of President Bush’s judicial nominees. Indeed, GOP aides as well as Frist himself have tried to keep the rhetoric red-hot even as they retreated by deciding on Friday to force votes on the highway bill this week.

Given the political fallout of derailing what Republicans and Democrats alike consider a “jobs bill” — it authorizes new construction work of roads, bridges and public transportation systems — it seems unlikely that Frist would decide this week is the time to drop the nuclear bomb on the judges standoff.

However, the highway debate will have its own drama — just not the partisan bickering kind. As always, highway funding cuts across party lines, largely breaking instead on the question of which states feel they are the have-nots among the haves.

Besides, Bush administration officials have repeatedly noted that the measure could be veto-bait if it comes in more expensive than the current $284 billion. Of course, even Republicans are taking this threat with a grain of salt, because in his four and half years as president, Bush has not once refused to sign a bill into law.

GOP Senators who feel their states won’t receive enough highway funding under the current bill are forcing a procedural vote today on closing debate on the motion to proceed to the bill. But a bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats are expected to beat back the attempted filibuster with relative ease.

It may be that Frist becomes the chief architect of a blowup on the Senate floor over the funding formulas that are used to determine how much federal money each state receives for transportation infrastructure. But his spokesman said the Majority Leader is working with the committee chairman in the hopes of having widespread agreement on formula changes before the issue comes to a vote.

Still, the chances for completing debate on the bill this week appear slim. If the Senate doesn’t finish this week, then they’ll have to wait until the week of May 9, because they’re off on a second spring recess next week.

Frist, in an attempt to head off a bipartisan coalition that wants to hike the bill’s cost up to $300 billion, will propose a new formula designed to satisfy Senators who feel their states got short shrift without increasing the bill’s $284 billion sticker price.

Of course, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and ranking member Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) have been grappling with exactly that problem for months, given that establishing a new funding formula is the primary purpose of the bill. But Frist apparently thinks he can do better, while simultaneously preventing the powerful Senate Finance chairman, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), from winning a vote on adding about $16 billion to the bill’s funding.

Frist’s hope is that the have-not Senators, presumably pleased with his reworking of the highway funding formulas, will support him in opposing Grassley’s amendment.

Democrats acknowledge that their Members will likely be all over the map on the Frist amendment, depending on how it impacts their states’ formulas. Republicans, too, will likely be split on a state-by-state basis.

Regardless of the outcome on formulas, Inhofe spokesman Will Hart sounded optimistic about the bill’s chances in the Senate. “We’re looking at a bill that is almost the same policy-wise as the bill that passed the Senate last year,” he said.

Even so, Inhofe will be backing Grassley’s amendment to bring the bill’s cost up to $300 billion. Grassley, along with Finance ranking member Max Baucus (D-Mont.), was reportedly working on an amendment that would make sure the extra cash for highways was offset by closing tax loopholes elsewhere.

Even though presumably all $300 billion of the bill would be paid for through offsets, Bush has sought to make the highway bill an example of his desire to keep federal spending down. That position has angered Inhofe and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), who say they took careful pains to make sure their bills would not add to the already ballooning federal deficit.

Nevertheless, House and Senate negotiators hope to have a conference report on the highway bill done by the end of May, when the current stopgap measure expires. The last highway bill expired 19 months ago, but funding has remained steady because Congress passed seven temporary measures to keep funds flowing to the states. However, no new construction projects have been authorized during that time.

Inhofe and Young have pinned their hopes of a more generous highway bill on the Senate’s willingness to vote for Grassley’s amendment as well as the White House’s previous acquiescence to raising its rock-bottom funding number from $256 billion last year to $284 billion this year.

But Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has so far been unwilling to flout the president’s wishes, and he may refuse to bring up a $300 billion highway conference report. Frist has exhibited a similar unwillingness to directly challenge the president on the issue.

Meanwhile, the House’s “Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act” should pass easily. A similar bill in the 107th Congress garnered 260 votes for passage, including 58 Democrats. Just 14 Republicans objected to the measure, which would criminalize the transport of a minor across state lines for an abortion if the intent is to avoid parental notification laws in the girl’s home state.

Senate Republican leaders have indicated a willingness to bring the measure up this year, but it’s likely to face substantially more opposition in that chamber from Democrats and Republicans who favor abortion rights. It appears unlikely, however, that opponents in the Senate have enough votes to filibuster the measure.

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