Bloomberg News

Former Highway Bill Foe Boehner Scavenging for Votes

February 27, 2012

(Updates with comment from Oberstar starting in seventh paragraph.)

Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. House Speaker John Boehner has never voted for highway-funding legislation, and he’s having trouble selling fellow Republicans on a plan written with them in mind.

The bill he planned to push through the House this week is being delayed amid criticism from his Republican majority as well as Democrats. Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, this week called the House plan “a love note to the Tea Party,” Republicans who have made cutting the size of government their chief goal say they are bothered by the $260 billion price tag.

“We’re dipping deep, deep into the general fund for what has traditionally been limited to the highway trust fund, and that’s a level of expenditure that’s not wise,” Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who opposes the bill, said in an interview.

The plan would reauthorize the 18.4-cent federal gasoline tax and set maximum spending levels for roads, bridges and mass transit for five years. The current highway law, which expires March 31, is the eighth temporary extension since a $244 billion, four-year plan ended in 2009.

“This is a much more difficult process than we’ve seen in the past,” Boehner of Ohio told reporters yesterday. “There is clearly angst on both sides of the aisle over a number of issues.”

Earmarked Funds

One reason, the speaker said, is that the plan lacks earmarked funds for lawmakers’ pet projects, which he has previously said numbered more than 6,000 in the last highway measure.

The Republican approach to the transportation bill is aimed at appealing to a “new breed” of lawmaker with “little understanding, little appreciation for bill history, who just wants to wipe out what was,” said Jim Oberstar, a former Minnesota representative who served as the top Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for 16 years before he was defeated in the 2010 election.

Oberstar noted that during his time on the panel, he and the top Republican would -- with their staffs -- write highway bills from scratch, regardless of which party was in the majority.

Natural Republican constituencies, such as the investment and contracting sectors, have been alienated by the Republican bill, Oberstar said.

‘Uncomfortable, Miserable’

“Why would you make life so uncomfortable, miserable and uncertain on an issue like this just to make a political point?” Oberstar said. “I don’t understand it.”

“In the past people were bought off with earmarks or some special provisions,” Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, a Florida Republican, told reporters this week. “We don’t have that luxury. What we have to do is to discuss policy; that takes longer.”

The plan would eliminate a program to fund bicycle trails and other transportation-related improvements that anti-tax Republicans view as wasteful. It would expand offshore drilling to provide royalties for highway spending, and raise funds by requiring federal workers to contribute more to their pensions.

It also would end the designated use of 2.86 cents of the gasoline tax for mass transit and other projects to improve air quality and reduce highway congestion. Instead, the measure would provide $40 billion in general funds for those purposes.

Flake objects to funding such projects at all, saying the bill’s scope should be limited to surface transportation projects that can be funded through gasoline tax revenue.

Mass Transit Support

Conversely, at least 10 Republicans from urban and suburban districts said they oppose the bill because it would end the automatic funding for mass transit.

“As long as that’s in there I can’t vote for it,” Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said in an interview. “That’s the only program where New York gets more money back” than it pays in gas taxes.

Factions of Republicans with objections, combined with opposition from almost all 192 House Democrats, mean “the math is more than tricky, but it can be fixed, and I’m committed the helping the speaker try and fix it,” said Steve LaTourette, an Ohio Republican.

House Republicans’ chief vote-counter, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, told members during a Feb. 1 closed-door party meeting that the 218 votes needed for the highway bill will have to come from within the party’s ranks, said two lawmakers who were in the room and spoke on condition of anonymity.

‘Misplaced Priorities’

Boehner told reporters Feb. 9 that the House measure is the first infrastructure highway bill he has ever supported. Prior measures, he said, “represented everything that was wrong with Washington: earmarks, endless layers of bureaucracy, wasted tax dollars and misplaced priorities.”

Even without earmarks, lawmakers can be swayed by parochial concerns. Representative Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, said in an interview that he was working to strip a provision that would prohibit horses from being transported in double- decker trailers. The provision has “farmers, ranchers in Colorado -- a huge rodeo industry -- up in arms,” he said.

President Barack Obama’s administration on Feb. 14 said it would veto the House bill, saying it would reduce safety, weaken environmental and labor protection and wouldn’t do enough to improve roads and bridges. The Senate is working on its plan, S. 1813, which would authorize $109.8 billion in spending for fiscal 2012 and 2013.

Three Bills

Republican leaders have split the House plan into three bills, and lawmakers are offering more than 300 amendments. The House passed the first measure last night and is set to consider the other two parts after next week’s Presidents’ Day recess.

Allowing votes on amendments to expand states’ responsibility to fund roads, bridges and mass transit and to limit spending on highways and mass transit will help Republicans get the 218 votes they need, even though the amendments probably won’t be adopted, said a Republican lawmaker who is helping rally votes for the measure and spoke on condition of anonymity. The lawmaker said leaders are counting on some Republican critics to come on board after they go on the record in favor of changes.

New Jersey Republican Scott Garrett proposed an amendment to create pilot programs allowing states to receive federal transportation funds through block grants. Oklahoma Republican James Lankford is pushing to let states opt out of federal highway programs, either by keeping the funds they contribute to the Highway Trust Fund or by allowing them to increase state gas taxes to cover the loss in revenue.

‘Right Direction’

Although Lankford said the highway bill was a “step in the right direction,” it wouldn’t go as far as he wanted to trim the federal government’s role in funding transportation.

In previous years, the highway bill “has always been something that’s attracted three-hundred-and-something votes,” LaTourette said. This year, every Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted against the bill on Feb. 6.

A Democrat on the panel, Pennsylvania’s Jason Altmire, said he opposed the plan because of provisions he viewed as anti- labor and because it would eliminate automatic funding for mass transit. He predicted it will take far beyond March 31 for the House and Senate to work out a plan.

“The likely outcome, everyone would agree, is we will not have a long-term highway bill by the end of the year,” Altmire said. “I just don’t see, this year, given the politics, how that’s possible.”

--With assistance from Derek Wallbank, Lisa Caruso, Michelle Jamrisko, Laura Litvan and James Rowley in Washington. Editors: Laurie Asseo, Jodi Schneider

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathleen Hunter in Washington at khunter9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo5@bloomberg.net


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