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Debating Highway Bill Details

It was a conservative Oklahoma Republican who told the House GOP not to even start.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s conference committee negotiations on a transportation reauthorization bill, Sen. James Inhofe threw cold water on any hopes House Republicans had that their Senate colleagues would put up a fight with Democrats on the long-delayed bill, lecturing conservatives from the House on the art of compromise.

House Republicans came into the meeting hoping to use Speaker John Boehner’s (Ohio) sweeping reform to transportation programs as their negotiating position — despite the fact that Boehner was unable to pass that measure and the highway bill that finally did pass the House did not include most of those reforms. Among other provisions, Boehner’s original bill linked domestic energy production to highway funding.

But Inhofe, one of the most conservative lawmakers on the Hill and the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, made it clear early he would not be backing the play.

“I say to my conservative friends here … on issues like national security and infrastructure, I’m a big spender. That’s what we’re here for,” Inhofe warned.

Indeed, Inhofe repeatedly noted that he and Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (Calif.) have, despite their ideological differences, found common ground on transportation.

“As many of you have heard me say before, on environmental issues, Barbara Boxer and I couldn’t be farther apart, but on infrastructure issues we come together because we both understand its importance,” Inhofe said, before launching into something of a mini lecture on compromise and the workings of a conference committee.

“This is the fourth time I have been part of a highway conference,” Inhofe said, directing his comments to the cadre of freshman House Republicans who are expected to be the most difficult to convince. “Each time there has been a healthy tension between the two chambers on what each brings to the conference. The brilliance of our legislative process is that the House and Senate first work through the issue independent of each other and then come together.

“Although often painful, messy and at times frustrating, it works because the end product is a mix of the best ideas from the House and Senate,” he added.

Similarly, Boxer sought to frame the issue as one of the two sides coming to terms over the narrow differences between the Senate’s long-term extension and the House’s pared-down version — rather than Boehner’s more ambitious original plan.

“If Sen. Inhofe and Sen. Boxer can agree on a bill, we can all agree on a bill. If Sen. [Jeff] Sessions [R-Ala.] and Sen. [Bernie] Sanders [I-Vt.] can agree on a bill, we can all agree on a bill. If Sen. [Max] Baucus [D-Mont.] and Sen. [Roy] Blunt [R-Mo.] can agree on a bill, we can all agree on a bill,” Boxer said, adding that “we have the wind at our backs” because of the bipartisan vote on the Senate version and backing of industry groups.

How the negotiations are framed in the early days is critical for how the talks will proceed, as it will determine what issues can be put on the table. House Republicans remained intent on forcing as broad of a definition of what was germane to the conference as possible.

Conferees must “include some serious reforms. You can’t just continue to throw money at serious problems. They tried that with the stimulus bill,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica said.

“I’m here today to say let’s not just spend more money … let’s have some serious reforms,” the Florida Republican added, warning that, “we’re not going to raise taxes. If you want to raise taxes, you’re on the wrong conference committee … [and] we can’t have earmarks.”

Similarly, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) argued the conference must also include energy provisions and other reforms.

“To be successful, we need real reforms to our highway programs that will make the most efficient and effective use of the taxpayer’s dollar, and we need to seize the opportunity to do something good for our energy security, which is so essential to economic growth,” Upton said.

Still, the only area where there was significant daylight between Democrats and Senate Republicans was over the issue of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which House Republicans included in their version of the bill.

Inhofe and his fellow Senate Republicans repeatedly endorsed the idea of passing language to push the pipeline forward, arguing that it has strong support in both chambers and is a job creation project.

Inhofe seemed to view that as the only major potential hang-up facing the conference.

“Now, there are a large group of people saying we can’t resolve the differences between the House and Senate on tough issues like Keystone XL. We will prove these pessimists wrong as well. I’m not saying it won’t be challenging, but the truth is the stakes are too high not to get a highway bill done this year,” Inhofe said.

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