Senate Highway Bill Jeopardized

Posted March 2, 2012 at 4:41pm

Efforts to pass a transportation bill are coming to a head in the Senate, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) setting up a test vote to shore up support for the measure, which has languished in the chamber for weeks.

Reid set up a vote for Tuesday morning on whether to cut off debate on a new version of the transportation package, which now includes 37 noncontroversial amendments that he said were agreed to by both sides.

“So what we have is a bill that is bipartisan totally,” Reid said on a conference call with reporters. He noted that the legislation’s supporters include Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.). The $109 billion measure would reauthorize surface transportation programs for two years.

For Reid’s gambit to work, at least seven Republicans would have to vote with Democrats to win the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and avert a filibuster. Democrats control 53 votes in the chamber.

Republicans may not be inclined to vote with Democrats to cut off debate because they typically chafe when Democrats file cloture, as it limits their ability to influence the legislation. If successful, Tuesday’s Senate vote would preclude votes on most amendments before final passage.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said Friday that Tuesday’s vote will be a test of whether Republicans intend to help Democrats pass a bipartisan bill that would support, or create, millions of jobs or whether they will continue to obstruct its progress.

While the Democratic aide downplayed the repercussions of a failure to beat back a filibuster Tuesday, it could complicate Congress’ ability to pass any highway bill.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has faced a revolt in his Conference over his transportation bill and was forced to scale back his ambitions.

Boehner’s latest 18-month iteration of the bill follows the GOP’s decision to abandon its five-year, $260 billion surface transportation bill, which stalled over objections from various wings of the caucus.

Sources have said that House leaders were hoping easy, bipartisan passage of the Senate transportation bill would allow them to bring that version up for quick passage as well.

But Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he believes that Senate Republicans are looking to stall passage of the transportation bill to give House Republicans time to find a way forward on their version.

“We don’t know if Speaker Boehner can ever craft a highway bill … because he is going to need Democrats [to help pass the bill]; he won’t get enough House Republicans to support funding even at present levels despite its popularity in America,” Schumer said on the press call with Reid.

Reid said he spoke briefly to Boehner at an event they both attended last week and urged him to pass a two-year bill, which would be easier to conference.

“That’s about the extent of our conversation,” Reid said.

Reid has complained that Republicans have filed more than 100 amendments to the bill and that most are not related to transportation issues, which he believes amounts to a filibuster by amendment.

Schumer said Republicans have not been negotiating in good faith and are focused on appeasing the most extreme right wing of their caucus, which questions the spending in the bill.

“When we offer the Senate Republicans votes on their amendments, and they have asked us for a bunch of tough votes … but we say, ‘If we agree to those votes, will you let us move forward on the bill?’ And they don’t give us that commitment at all,” said Schumer, who is head of the Senate Democrats’ policy and communications operation.

Senate Republicans argue that it is Democrats who have chosen to take a partisan position regarding the bill.

A Republican Senate aide said Democrats could have moved the process forward by choosing some bipartisan amendments out of the 100 that have been offered. But Democrats have chosen not to, the aide said.

“Democrats are in charge; they set the schedule,” the GOP aide said.

So far, the Senate has voted on only one amendment to the bill — a GOP proposal that would have allowed companies and insurance providers to opt out of mandated birth control coverage for religious reasons. It was killed on a 51-48 vote last week.

Reid indicated that there would not likely be a vote on an amendment from Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) to strip out language that would allow the Nevada Department of Transportation to use funds from a 2005 unspent earmark.

“I don’t think I have a plan on doing much about it, so that should answer your question,” Reid said when asked about the amendment.