House transportation bill lands in the ditch

AP News
Posted: Feb 15, 2012 6:06 PM
House transportation bill lands in the ditch

A long-term blueprint for federal transportation programs was delayed Wednesday by House Speaker John Boehner as GOP leaders scramble to shore up support for the endangered measure.

Boehner told Republican lawmakers at a closed-door meeting that he has delayed final action on the 4 1/2 -year, $260 billion bill until after next week's congressional recess. Republicans had been saying they hoped to pass it this week.

Boehner cited two reasons for the delay: It will take more time than planned to work through nearly 300 amendments lawmakers want to offer, and Republicans need to find more money to pay for the bill, said spokesman Michael Steel.

But others in both parties said there are so many Republicans who object to some portion of the 1,000-page bill that it can't pass in its present form. The bill's treatment of mass transit programs has riled urban lawmakers, including New York and Chicago-area Republicans. Other Republicans are concerned with provisions that would permit oil and gas drilling off the East, West and Florida Gulf coasts, as well as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Still others have concerns about how the legislation will affect their districts, GOP lawmakers said.

"We're trying to figure out where our membership is," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "There are different issues on the bill that we're trying to work through so we can get 218 votes," the number needed to ensure passage.

"A lot of it is parochial stuff, and the conservatives are concerned about spending in general. We're trying to get through that," he said.

Another committee member, Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., said Republican leaders need to fundamentally rework the bill to attract Democratic votes. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has predicted that in its present form the bill will not win over a single Democrat, and the White House has threatened to veto the measure.

"We all know that if at the end of the day we want to get a bill through that provides jobs and builds the country ... we're really going to have to go back to the drawing board and see if we can't develop a broader consensus," Petri said.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the transportation committee chairman, was more upbeat. "There is very, very strong support for a transportation bill. The secret is getting it adjusted so that it satisfies a majority of the members. It's that simple," he said.

Satisfying lawmakers' concerns that the bill's spending be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget to avoid increasing the deficit got harder this week. House GOP leaders agreed to divert for other purposes $15 billion of an estimated $40 billion in savings from changes to federal employee pensions. All of the money had been envisioned to help make up a $50 billion shortfall between the bill's $260 billion in spending and the money raised through federal gas and diesel taxes.

Drawing the most fire are provisions of the bill that would require all money raised through fuel taxes be spent on highway programs, which would prevent a portion from being used to pay for mass transit programs. Transit programs have received a share of gas tax revenues under a deal dating to the Reagan administration. They can still be paid for with money from the general treasury. But without a guaranteed source of income, transit programs would be more vulnerable to budget cuts.


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