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Oberstar Maps a Course for Full Highway Bill

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is looking to turn the tables in his ongoing battle with the White House and Senate over transportation legislation.

If the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has his way, the House this week will approve a $3 billion infusion for the ailing Highway Trust Fund before leaving town Friday. Doing so would head off a projected shortfall in the account that in mid-August would halt federal payments for highway projects — funds desperately needed by cash-starved states.

Moreover, the gambit buys time for Oberstar to press his six-year transportation overhaul, also known as the highway bill, by throwing off a plan advancing in the Senate that would extend the current transportation law for 18 months beyond its Sept. 30 expiration.

Senate leaders are aiming to pass the bill before the recess, but with the House scheduled to adjourn one week earlier, the Senate could be forced to act on a short-term fix to keep highway dollars flowing.

“We have to do something before August,— Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, acknowledged last week. Murray said it was unclear if the Senate would do a short-term plug or a $26 billion fix proposed by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), which would keep the highway trust fund afloat for 18 months.

The 18-month extension is favored by the Obama administration, which doesn’t want to add a tough fight over transportation revenues to an agenda already teetering under the weight of health care reform and global warming. Three Senate committees have already passed the extension, which would be joined with Baucus’ plan.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) earlier this month called the 18-month plan “realistic— given the tight schedule and agenda. “I think six years is difficult because you’ve got to talk about some pretty significant revenue sources to replenish the Highway Trust Fund,— he said.

But Oberstar is digging in on his $500 billion, 775-page overhaul, arguing the administration’s delay will kick the can down the road indefinitely. “It’s not going to be 18 months, it’s going to be four years,— he said in an interview last week.

He said he agrees with the revenue sources in Baucus’ bill, which would allow the highway fund to earn interest on its balance and restore billions of dollars of funds withdrawn for nontransportation emergencies over the years, but not its purpose — to prop up the extension.

Oberstar’s bill, which would tilt federal transportation policy toward sustainability and “intermodal— transport, is the culmination of an impressive career that has seen the 74-year-old rise from the top staffer slot on the former House Public Works Committee to chairman of its current incarnation, the Transportation and Infrastructure panel. With more than four decades of experience under his belt, Oberstar is acclaimed for his policy expertise and at one point was mentioned as a possible Transportation secretary after President Barack Obama was elected last year.

But relations between the White House and the 18-term Congressman have soured in recent months. Oberstar was furious earlier this year after White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said a proposal to tax vehicle miles traveled was a nonstarter. The tension was exacerbated by the administration’s call earlier this summer for the 18-month extension.

Oberstar last week sounded an exasperated tone when asked about the White House’s response to his $3 billion plug. “I don’t know,— he said. “I’ve called — over six months — I’ve called; I’ve left messages; I’ve asked for their input; I’ve got nothing. Until finally they said, Oh, oh my God, we can’t do anything, we’ve got to wait 18 months and then we’ll think of some good projects.’—

However, administration officials deny they’ve ignored Oberstar, noting that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has traveled to Capitol Hill repeatedly to meet with the chairman. But one official acknowledged that Oberstar’s short-term fix is tripping up efforts to extend the current law. “We’d prefer to do it all— at once, said the source.

In an e-mail, Transportation Department spokeswoman Jill Zuckman said: “We appreciate all proposals because it shows the commitment of Congress to work towards shoring up the highway trust fund which is on the verge of a serious shortfall.—

But the administration privately says Oberstar’s $3 billion fix isn’t enough to see the fund through the end of the year, and between $5 billion and $7 billion may be needed. Oberstar spokesman Jim Berard said the $3 billion request is based on recent DOT estimates.

Oberstar claims the backing of the House Democratic leadership for his six-year rewrite, although he acknowledged that continued support may hinge on the political feasibility of the bill’s revenue-raisers.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week sought to downplay the issue. “Oh, eventually … we will have a transportation bill. It is just a question if we take it in a smaller dose or a bigger dose,— she said.

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