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House Conservatives Make Play on Highway Bill

House conservatives today are expected to push a set of instructions to the chamber’s highway conferees that they must only spend as much on highway and transit programs as can be pulled from the Highway Trust Fund.

Although the instructions authored by Rep. Paul Broun (Ga.) are nonbinding, conservatives hope to lay down a clear marker that they will not accept any increases in funding or continued use of general funds to pay for the massive transportation program.

It is unclear whether Broun’s motion, which will likely be given a Friday vote, will succeed, given Speaker John Boehner’s (Ohio) desire to see a bill completed that can pass both chambers this year. However, the conservative Heritage Action group, which has become increasingly influential with some conservative Members of the House, announced today that it would key vote Broun’s proposal.

The motion to instruct conferees comes as leaders of the conference committee continue to negotiate behind closed doors.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) have held a number of meetings over the past several weeks to discuss the bill, and Boxer remained in town this week to continue her work with Mica, even though the Senate is in recess.

Both lawmakers have remained upbeat.

“I talked to Sen. Boxer and Sen. Boxer was optimistic. There are others on the conference committee not as optimistic as Sen. Boxer. I’m hopeful Sen. Boxer is correct. We need to do the highway bill,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said Wednesday.

Hoyer, noting that half of the Republicans in the Senate voted for Boxer’s version of the bill, argued a deal should be within reach.

“After all [Sens. James] Inhofe [R-Okla.] and Barbara Boxer represent a pretty broad spectrum of philosophy in the United States Senate. If they can come together and agree, you would think that the House of Representatives leadership could do so as well,” Hoyer said.

Still, leadership aides in both chambers were far more cautious in their assessments of the talks.

According to aides, while Boxer and Mica are indeed making strides in their own negotiations, they have yet to bring in many other Members, particularly the large cadre of House freshmen whose strong conservative leanings could trip up a deal that does not make significant cost savings.

Several major issues, notably inclusion of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, remain outstanding.

“There’s no progress,” one House GOP aide familiar with the negotiations bluntly said Wednesday.

Meredith Shiner and Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.

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