Leaders Demand Highway Bill Agreement

Posted June 19, 2012 at 6:15pm

Despite a number of issues yet to be resolved, Senate Democratic and House Republican leaders met Tuesday to call on their respective transportation bill lieutenants to hammer out a deal by the end of the week.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said leaders have asked Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) “to work something out this week on the bill.”

On Tuesday, Reid met with Speaker John Boehner in the Ohio Republican’s office, along with Boxer, Mica and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

“The Speaker will say the same thing I said,” Reid said, declining to provide any other details.

When asked whether an extension was discussed, Reid said, “The full bill — that’s all we talked about.”

In March, the Senate passed, 74-22, a surface transportation bill that would extend programs for two years and provide $109 billion for projects. The bill is now being negotiated with the House. While the House did not pass a companion bill, the chamber’s GOP leaders are trying to negotiate a bill that can win the support of freshman conservatives in their caucus. Tea-party-inspired freshmen in particular have been skeptical of the need for a highway bill and the spending in the Senate package.

Congress has until the end of the month to pass a bill or transportation programs will lose funds and many infrastructure projects and jobs around the nation could come to a screeching halt.

But a confident Boxer said she was up to the job.

“The leadership wants it, so that was a good meeting,” Boxer said. “I intend to do everything in my power to get it done.”

Mica said he was also committed to reaching a deal.

“There are additional offers on the table,” he said. “We are focused on trying to do a bill.”

He added: “I can’t get into any more specifics. I am always an optimist.”

Boehner said nothing to reporters as he left the meeting.

“Chairman Mica and our House negotiators continue to work toward a bicameral agreement, and they have the full support of House leadership and the House Republican Conference,” a Boehner spokesman said. “We believe it is crucial that we have real reforms in how we spend taxpayers’ highway dollars, and we continue to support bipartisan jobs initiatives,” such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which the GOP has been pushing to include in the deal.

A House GOP aide listed three key reforms that Republicans are calling for: the consolidation of transportation programs, the scaling back of transportation enhancements, which is the primary source of funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects, and environmental streamlining.

After an agreement on those issues is reached, House GOP leaders believe both sides can resolve Keystone, a provision the Republicans have called for that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from setting enforceable safeguards for coal ash, and the RESTORE Act, which would send most of the fines from the BP oil spill to the Gulf Coast states.

Democratic members of the conference committee met before the leaders’ meeting and “shared notes and perspectives of all our Democratic conferees on the process,” Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.) said.

“There are a number of issues over which there is disagreement,” Rahall said. “And the root cause … is that there is a clear policy from Republicans to not allow this administration to take credit for putting a single American back to work or saving a single American job. This is the only jobs bill on the agenda before Congress at this moment. People expect Congress to act.”

Rahall said he hopes enough stakeholder groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are “stepping up” to call for passage of the bill.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Republicans have been evasive in negotiations.

“It’s very difficult to pin them down on what they are agreeing to and not agreeing to,” Nadler said.

“It’s very clear that … if Boehner wanted a bill, he could have one negotiated in 24 hours,” Nadler added. “I don’t think he wants a bill.”

Before the leadership meeting, Mica dismissed the allegations and said the differences have to do with Democrats not giving concessions to Republicans. But he didn’t provide any details.

Democrats need to offer “a lot of concessions on some of the major issues,” Mica said.

“We have the balance of the week to get something done,” he added.

Earlier this month, Boehner said he would prefer a six-month extension of the highway bill if the bicameral conference committee cannot come to a resolution by the end of the month.

A six-month extension would require Congress to deal with reauthorizing transportation programs during an expected post-election, lame-duck session — adding to an already long list of critical legislative priorities, including extending Bush-era tax cuts, raising the debt limit and undoing the sequester of automatic spending cuts set to begin in January.