House advances controversial transportation, energy bills

The rule covers H.R. 7, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, which would authorize $260 billion in federal transportation programs over the next five years. It also covers two separate bills that GOP leaders hope will pay for some of that spending: H.R. 3813, the Securing Annuities for Federal Employees (SAFE) Act, which requires federal workers to pay more for their retirement, and H.R. 3408, the Protecting Investment in Oil Shale, the Next Generation of Environmental, Energy and Resource Security (PIONEERS) Act, which encourages oil shale production.

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Democrats were already broadly opposed to these measures when they were packaged together. But Republicans also had trouble swallowing it, in part because the Congressional Budget Office said it would leave the federal highway fund short $78 billion over the next decade.

Faced with GOP opposition, House leaders split the bill into three parts, and decided to deal with them separately on the floor. But that led to other problems in today's debate.

Specifically, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) argued on the floor that the rule only allows general debate on the highway bill, while consideration of amendments will depend on a separate rule that the House Rules Committee is now expected to approve after the President's Day recess. LaTourette, who is opposed to the package, expressed the fear of many Democrats by saying GOP leaders were asking members to trust that amendments will be considered according to a rule no one has seen yet.

"I may have a different view on your rule today unless there's some assurance you're going to produce a second rule that's somehow going to resemble an open rule on these remaining amendments," he said.

Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) said that Republican leaders would try to avoid debate and votes on amendments "over my dead body." LaTourette replied, "The gentleman's an honorable member and I'm going to go with that."

Democrats on Wednesday continued their attack on the process of splitting the bill into three pieces, and said it confuses the process and appears designed to help Republicans pass a bill that many oppose. But they also more generally argued against the substance of the bills, which they said would cut federal transportation funding over the next five years.

"H.R. 7 slashes investments in federal highways by $15.8 billion from current levels over the bill's duration," Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) said. "It does so at a time when our roads and bridges are crumbling before our eyes."

Republican staffers reject this, and have pointed out that the bill would fund highway spending at current levels for the next five years. They said Democratic claims that the bill slashes spending are incorrectly comparing the bill to higher spending levels that were never enacted.

Republicans also criticized Democrats for not supporting a bill that level-funds highway spending in more creative ways, such as boosting energy revenues and requiring federal workers to contribute more to retirement.

"As opposed to past transportation efforts, this bill stops the annual raid on general funds to bail out the highway trust fund, and is paid for by CBO scoring savings and revenues," Webster said. "Significant savings are generated by the SAFE Act, which increases federal employee pension contributions to 2.3 percent, and it also increases pension contributions by members of Congress to 2.8 percent."

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said further that Democrats appear to be arguing in favor of spending more money with more debt financing, which Republicans reject.

"They wish to fund transportation programs the old fashioned way, which means we spend money we don't have," he said. "What we're trying to do with this particular bill is go outside of the box and find a way to actually pay for infrastructure improvements, a way to pay for our transportation needs, and to do it with energy development."

With House approval of the rule, members are expected to begin debate on the PIONEERS Act, and then start work on 20 amendments later today.

Earlier today, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the GOP would delay planned consideration of the highway bill.

In addition, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said today's planned 2 p.m. Rules Committee meeting, which was to approve a rule for the highway bill, will be postponed until after the President's Day break.

"Because of the nearly 300 amendments submitted to the transportation portion of the plan, and in order to accommodate floor action on the Payroll tax compromise, the transportation component will not be considered by the Rules Committee until after the President's Day recess," Dreier said.

A spokesman for Boehner added that aside from needing more time, the House also expects to work on a payroll tax holiday extension bill, which is another reason to delay work on H.R. 7.

"We are still beginning consideration of the energy/infrastructure plan on the floor this week, and we may or may not get as far as a vote on the energy piece, depending on several factors, including how many of the many amendments we can get through, and the timing of the expected vote on the previously unscheduled payroll/UI agreement," spokesman Michael Steel said.

"As the Speaker said at the GOP conference meeting this morning, the highway piece will likely not be completed before the President's Day district work period."