Highway Bill Finally Clears Roadblocks

Republicans Hope Passing Conference Report Will Be Easier

Posted April 18, 2012 at 6:16pm

Speaker John Boehner finally got his first transportation win Wednesday, a scaled-back measure that passed the House, 293-127, to set up a rare conference committee with the Senate.

Wednesday’s bipartisan vote caps a
78-day campaign by the Ohio Republican to pass transportation legislation. Boehner’s quest began in February with a plan to change how the nation pays for highway construction and ended with passage of a 90-day extension of current spending programs.

Passage of the bill — indeed, any highway measure — clears a significant hurdle in the process of reauthorizing transportation spending, and Republican aides said they hope the conference will be much easier.

One leadership aide argued that while Boehner felt it necessary to pass the initial bill with strong support from Republicans, it is unlikely similar pressures will be on conferees and said leadership will likely be content with leaning on Democrats for final passage.

“Look at the appropriations process last year. We’re going to get the same people on this as we did then,” the leadership aide said, adding that it should “absolutely” be easier to pass the conference report.

Democrats were less charitable in their predictions.

“This is designed to get to a conference committee with two exceptionally different products, all with some devious kinds of procedures in order to get people on the Republican side to vote for something that will get them to a conference committee,” Rep. John Olver (D-Mass.), ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, said Wednesday.

“And what comes out of the conference committee, I haven’t the slightest idea what it will look like, not the slightest. … I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like or whether we’re going to get one at all,” he added.

One thing Democrats and Republicans agreed on, however, is that whatever the committee ends up producing will likely resemble the Senate’s two-year extension much more closely than Boehner’s original plan and that many of the changes to transportation programs included in Wednesday’s bill might not survive.

Still, it is difficult to imagine how the conference proceedings and final passage could be more difficult than the journey Boehner took to get to Wednesday’s vote.

After signaling last fall that transportation would be one of his top policy priorities for the 112th Congress, Boehner unveiled his ambitious five-year reauthorization plan at the beginning of February.

Designed to leave the Speaker’s imprint on federal policy, the plan made sweeping changes to transportation programs, separating transit and highway funding while tying revenues from oil and gas exploration to spending on highways, all while eliminating earmarks.

For Boehner, linking energy production and transportation spending was a no-brainer for conservatives in his party. He “really thought it was something that would get a lot of support,” a leadership aide acknowledged.

But instead of backing, Boehner faced an immediate — and open — backlash. Conservatives denounced the bill for not including enough devolution to the states while moderates and old-line Members slammed it over dozens of parochial issues, ranging from coastal drilling to spending on ports.

After several days of pushing the measure, Boehner opted to break it into parts and quickly passed the energy titles, most of which had previously been approved by the House.

But opposition to the transportation piece not only remained, it became increasingly entrenched over the next several weeks as Boehner floated various revisions and rewrites.

By late last week it had become clear that he would be unable to wrangle his Conference into supporting a full reauthorization, and Boehner decided to cut his losses and find a path forward to a conference committee with the Senate.

Working with a handful of Members, Boehner put together a list of reforms that could be added to a 90-day extension of current spending — as well as language on the Keystone XL pipeline — as sweeteners to persuade Republicans to agree to go to conference.

Boehner praised passage of the bill — in so far as it included the Keystone language.

“The House is on record again in support of the Keystone XL energy pipeline — a project President Obama blocked, personally lobbied against, then tried to take credit for and now says he’ll veto,” Boehner said.

Although initially critical, many Democrats supported the bill in hopes that the conference process would produce a workable bill.

“Taking Republicans at their word that they are serious about moving this process forward, passage of this extension of current law through the end of the fiscal year will allow us to go to conference with the Senate on their bipartisan multiyear bill, which passed with the support of three-quarters of the Senate,” Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said in a statement.

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.