House GOP Faces Stark Highway Bill Options

Posted March 6, 2012 at 5:54pm

House GOP leaders are facing a critical moment in their efforts to move surface transportation legislation today and will bluntly warn their Members that they need to coalesce around one of their various proposals or risk being boxed in by the Senate.

Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) — who had made the highway bill his signature policy issue this year — will use an early morning meeting of the Republican Conference to lay out the options facing lawmakers, including passing some version of his original five-year spending plan, passing an 18-month version or waiting for the Senate to complete its version and taking up that.

Some within Boehner’s Conference favor simply passing the Senate’s two-year version — which was crafted specifically to avoid the kinds of parochial pitfalls that have stalled his bill — but for the Ohio Republican, waiting for that measure presents its own problems.

“The reality is that the Senate [bill] could pass with substantial majorities,” one GOP aide said, explaining that such a scenario would make it very difficult to pass a House version of the measure that is based on the types of spending reforms conservatives want.

Although the Senate bill would likely pass the House on a massive bipartisan basis, with most Democrats and a solid number of Republicans supporting the measure, it would also undermine
Republicans’ efforts to demonstrate their commitment to fiscal restraint.

Unfortunately for Boehner, if he’s going to persuade his Conference to accept some sort of legislation, he’ll need to do it soon: An increasing number of House Republicans appear to be comfortable with the idea of accepting the Senate bill, and Congress is facing an end-of-the-month deadline for completing work or it risks having highway programs lapse.

At least for now, Republicans seem confident some sort of deal can be reached.

“I can’t imagine a scenario in which we have a shutdown of the federal highway program. There will be some sort of highway bill before the end of the month,” predicted one senior GOP leadership aide, who cautioned that there remains a remote chance that a short-term extension may be needed.

House Democrats appeared to revel in Boehner’s troubles.

When asked to predict whether a bill will emerge, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer quipped, “Well I don’t want to put odds on that because the Republican Party is such a deeply divided party.”

The Maryland Democrat pointed to last summer’s problems passing a Federal Aviation Administration extension, and the public outcry that occurred when Congress let the program shut down, as added pressure on the GOP.

“I don’t think Republicans want another FAA. … I think they were embarrassed by that, as they should have been. [Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John] Mica [Fla.] was playing chicken, but he was playing chicken with 74,000 people. … Bottom line is, I think we’ll do something by March 31,” Hoyer said.

After stumbling over another hurdle Tuesday, Senate leaders were working on an agreement that could pave the way for passage of a stalled transportation bill by the end of the week.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he has discussed the bill with the White House and is hopeful the measure will move forward.

“The president — I’ve met with him. He said he’d like to work to get something done on a bipartisan basis,” Reid said. “We’re going to see what we can do in that regard.”

Reid reiterated his frustration with Republican efforts to try to get votes on amendments not related to transportation.

“There is a lot of other totally unrelated matters,” Reid said. “They’ve got lots of them, and we have to try to work our way through those.”

Senate Democrats were pleased by what they called openness on the part of Boehner to possibly take up a Senate-passed transportation measure.

“Reading between the lines on what Speaker Boehner said, I think there is a good chance that they will take up the Senate bill, and that means it would be a bipartisan bill over there,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is the lead sponsor of the bill.

“For the first time in a while, I feel confident that this bill is going to move, it’s going to pass,” she added.

Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the list of nongermane amendments has been significantly whittled down and will likely include a proposal to green-light the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline and an amendment to delay and alter boiler pollution regulations.

Senate Republicans were relatively upbeat, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) noting an agreement on amendments was likely.

“With regard to the highway bill, let me just say that we’re very close to having agreed, after weeks of discussion, to a series of amendments,” McConnell said. “There’s no good reason why we can’t finish the highway bill this week, and I fully expect that we will.”

Earlier Tuesday, Reid sought to bring debate to a close on new version of the transportation package, which includes 37 germane, noncontroversial amendments that he said were agreed to by both sides. But Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to cut off debate, with a mostly party-line vote of 52-44.

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.