By John Crawley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican leaders in the House of Representatives will consider removing a contentious funding provision in a multi-year $260 billion transportation bill in a bid to ensure its passage in the chamber.
With no Democratic support in sight and enough Republicans balking at the provision because of an unpopular change in transit construction funding, Republican leadership prepared to open the floor to amendments this week.
Infrastructure spending has long been recognized as an economic stimulus, and Republicans and Democrats are feeling election-year pressure to create jobs.
The most recent figures from the Transportation Department show that 27,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion in federal spending on road, bridge and transit construction.
Congress has been unable to agree on a new law authorizing long-term federal spending on transportation programs, which usually runs for five or six years. The last one expired in 2009 and a series of temporary spending bills have filled the gap since. The current one expires on March 31.
The five-year bill in the Republican-controlled House contains a handful of "hot button" issues that insiders say must be weighed carefully and possibly amended before leadership can deliver a majority of votes necessary for passage.
A key stumbling block is a provision that would no longer fund mass transit projects through the Highway Trust Fund - a guaranteed revenue stream financed through federal gasoline tax receipts.
Instead, the bill that headed to the floor would pay for transit projects through a one-time, $40 billion transfer from general tax revenues, and provide no future dedicated source of funding. Money for future transit initiatives would be subject to annual congressional budget flights, like scores of other federal programs fighting for shrinking outlays of domestic spending.
'BACK TO THE DARK AGES'
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican House member who has met with members on the legislation, told reporters on Monday that the House version was "a terrible bill" that "takes us back to the dark ages."
Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York co-sponsored an amendment with Republican Steven LaTourette from Ohio to strike the provision that they say would threaten transit funding over the long term.
"To eliminate transit's dedicated funding stream and relegate funding to the political machinations of the appropriations process is, effectively, to kill transit funding," Nadler said.
Even if the House manages to remove that obstacle and passes the bill, transportation legislation faces an uphill battle in Congress.
It will be a challenge to negotiate compromise legislation with a two-year, $109 billion bill working its way through the Senate. A Republican amendment to that highway proposal to force approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline is a likely flashpoint.
Neither chamber is incorporating a six-year, $476 billion infrastructure proposal put forward on Monday by President Barack Obama in his 2013 budget. The plan is similar in scope to other proposals he and Democrats have proposed previously and went nowhere in Congress.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Philip Barbara)