Republicans add US highway funding to list of divisive issues

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 15, 2015 3:53 PM

By Richard Cowan

HERSHEY, Pa. (Reuters) - U.S. congressional Republicans, already struggling to find a common approach to hot topics like immigration and Obamacare, also face an intraparty rift over how to meet a May deadline to fund massive road, bridge and transit projects.

The skirmish may intensify after next week when President Barack Obama is expected to use his State of the Union address to urge Congress to approve billions of dollars in funds to mobilize construction crews all over the United States.

"We do think this is one of the areas that we can cooperate with the president," said Republican Representative Tom Cole, who is close to his party's leadership in the House of Representatives.

"The president wants to spend a lot more money on infrastructure and so do we," Cole said in an interview, expressing a sentiment which may be at odds with the small-government Tea Party activists who have dominated the party in recent years.

With money in the highway trust fund that pays for infrastructure projects running out at the end of May, Republicans are struggling to find a way to pay for legislation with a five-year price tag in the range of $75 billion to more than $100 billion.

Intra-party disagreements over the funding are among the topics House and Senate Republicans are trying to resolve at an annual retreat in south-central Pennsylvania.

While some Republicans and Democrats want to increase federal gasoline taxes to pay for rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges, Obama has not jumped on board and House Speaker John Boehner warned that his chamber is unlikely to go along.

So Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are looking for other ways to repair a national infrastructure that many policymakers see as being in such bad shape that former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proclaimed in 2012 that "America is one big pothole."

Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, chairman of a House panel overseeing infrastructure spending, told Reuters there were significant disagreements among fellow Republicans.

"How big, how long, how to do it," the Florida lawmaker said.

According to several Republicans, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is trying to craft tax changes that could capture revenues to fund construction. It was unclear if this could be accomplished by the end of May, given how contentious tax changes are in Washington.

Cole said a new, controversial way of calculating the cost of legislation could help. Known as "dynamic scoring," it allows Congress to project economic benefits stemming from legislation to minimize the impact on budget deficits.

Meanwhile, Democrats are urging Republicans to act fast so states can launch summer construction season projects.

Democrats say a highway trust fund shortfall could delay 112,000 roadway and 5,5600 transit projects important to the U.S. economy, and specifically to cement firms like Lafarge, equipment companies like Caterpillar Inc, unions and the trucking industry.

(Editing by John Whitesides; Editing by Christian Plumb)