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Lacking Support, Boehner Plans Long Debate on Highway Bill

With the prospects of a grand bargain on transportation and energy legislation dashed and his bill broken into pieces, Speaker John Boehner told his colleagues today that the House debate on highway spending would extend beyond next week’s recess as leaders struggle to shore up support.

GOP aides said the Ohio Republican’s hand was forced in part because the payroll tax cut deal will use some of the offsets included in the package, as well as the fact that Boehner is hoping a protracted amendment process to the highway bill will build enough support for passage.

During a closed-door meeting with his Conference, Boehner told Republicans that, “Given the volume of amendments and the need for a full, fair, open and transparent process, we may not finish energy/infrastructure this week. If we need more time to debate and consider amendments, that’s perfectly fine with me. It’s more important that we do it right than that we do it fast,” according to a person in the room.

Boehner also tacitly acknowledged the deep opposition within his own Conference to the bill.

“Look, I know some of you still have concerns about this plan. That’s why I want you to have a chance to offer amendments, to have a full debate on the floor,” Boehner said.

He also argued that the transportation and energy fight is one Republicans should embrace.

“This debate is a debate we want to have; ABC News reported last night that we will soon see $4-a-gallon gas prices. Maybe higher. Certainly, this summer will see the highest gas prices in years,” Boehner said.

During next week’s recess, “your constituents saw that report, and they’ll be talking about it. When they do, tell them about this bill that we’re working on,” he added.

The strategy comes at significant peril for Boehner, who has thrown much of his political capital behind the package. Lawmakers are traditionally loath to leave bills “hanging” over a recess because it allows opponents to marshal their forces and build pressure on fence-sitting Members to oppose them.

In fact, the bill has already drawn significant opposition and interest groups have already begun running ads against Boehner’s bill.

For instance, Taxpayers for Common Sense on Tuesday launched radio ads against 12 GOP House Members, including Reps. Mo Brooks (Ala.), Jason Chaffetz (Utah) and Steve King (Iowa) and Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.).

On Tuesday, Boehner announced he would break his signature transportation and energy bill into three parts in the hopes of salvaging at least the energy portion. The larger bill was intended to be the Ohio Republican’s most substantial mark on policy, fundamentally reforming how the government funds highway and mass transit projects.

But facing a revolt from both conservatives and rank-and-file Members with parochial concerns, Boehner abandoned that plan.