Short-Term Highway Bill at Issue in House

Posted March 28, 2012 at 6:34pm

After two failed efforts to pass a short-term extension of surface transportation law, House Republican leaders plan to take up a 90-day extension today in an effort to avert a shutdown of federal highway programs on Saturday.

“We have the 218 votes to get the 90-day” measure passed, Majority Whip
Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Wednesday, predicting the vote could be significantly higher since “once we get to 218, a lot of Democrats” will vote for it.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) sought to pass 90-day and 60-day extensions Monday and Tuesday under suspension of the rules, which is typically reserved for noncontroversial measures and requires a two-thirds vote for passage.

But House leaders twice delayed those votes after Democrats pledged to withhold their votes in an effort to force Republicans to take up a Senate-passed highway bill that would extend transportation programs for two years and provide
$109 billion in funding. The Senate approved its bill on a bipartisan vote, 74-22.

Given the events of the past two days, it’s unclear whether House Democrats would vote for the proposed 90-day extension.

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said the short-term plan would also need
cooperation from the Senate.

“There is going to have to be a rule and we are going to have to blast it out of here with 218 Republican votes and pray that the Senate didn’t call our bluff and things shut down next week,” LaTourette said.

Senate Democrats were skeptical that Republicans alone could provide the 218 votes needed to pass the measure.

“So far they are 0 for 2,” a Senate Democratic aide said of the extension measures.

“We’ll believe it when we see it,” the aide said. “If they don’t manage to pass it, they will have no other option but to pass the Senate bill.”

House conservatives could take issue with extending current transportation laws without offsets. Transportation funding is paid for by the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax, which is pooled together in the highway trust fund. The fund is distributed back to states under a formula devised by Congress. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the trust fund could run out of funds as soon as fiscal 2014.

LaTourette said he believes there are enough Republican votes to pass an extension, despite voices in the caucus who argue that the federal government should have no role in transportation programs and funding.

“I am not a whip counter, but I will support it,” LaTourette said. He did not support a five-year bill House Republican leaders initially sought to pass.

“We still are going to have people [in our Conference] that are going to think that highway spending should not exceed the receipts from the trust fund … but I would be surprised if we couldn’t get 218 Republicans to think that extending the highway program and not shutting down all the road projects in their district before Easter was a good thing,” he said.

Meanwhile, House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) on Wednesday afternoon urged the Rules Committee to allow Democrats to offer the Senate’s two-year extension as an amendment to the 90-day bill.

In a letter to Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), Rahall argued, “It is far past the time to stop the political games and brinkmanship which have forced states to delay bid lettings and projects. … Our amendment provides Congress an opportunity to end these pointless games.”

But Republicans did not give Democrats such an opportunity. At a minimum it would be a politically difficult vote for a number of Republicans, and given the broad level of support for the Senate bill in the House, there is some concern that it could, in theory, pass.

Earlier Wednesday, Senate Democrats continued to hammer House Republicans, urging them to take up and clear their chamber’s transportation bill.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who heads the Senate Democrats’ policy and communication operation, used a countdown clock to bring home the message that transportation programs expire on Saturday.

“The clock is ticking, time is running out,” Schumer said. “Speaker Boehner simply cannot pass a transportation bill of any length without Democratic votes, and it’s time he accepts that very simple fact. Fortunately there is an easy way out that already has the stamp of approval from some of the most conservative people in the Congress — Senate Republicans.”

Schumer continued: “He could pass the Senate bill plain and simple … bipartisan, does the job, no ideological pitfalls for either side. Why doesn’t he do it?”