House votes to negotiate highway bill with Senate

The Senate announced on Tuesday that 14 senators would lead negotiations on the bill for the Senate. The House was expected to name its conferees shortly.

Later Wednesday afternoon, the House turned away an attempt by Democrats to speed up the conference by instructing House negotiators to accept the Senate-passed bill. That bill, S. 1813, would fund federal highway programs for two years, a plan Democrats prefer over the House-passed bill that only extends funding through September.

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The motion to instruct, from Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), was defeated in a mostly party-line vote of 181-242.

Rahall said he brought up his motion to help speed up the conference, which will now have to sort out two very different highway funding bills. Aside from the duration of funding, the House bill also includes language mandating the approval of the Keystone pipeline.

"American workers should not have to wait any longer as Congress searches for an agreement," he said. "The time for political games is over."

Rahall also argued that if differences remain, Congress could pass the Senate-approved bill, S. 1813, and then pass a technical corrections bill to address these differences.

But Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said he opposed the motion to instruct, since it would effectively remove the House's point of view on the highway bill completely.

"What they want to do is cast the participation of the House of Representatives aside, and just adopt what the Senate has brought forward," Mica said of the Democratic plan.

The failure of Rahall's motion leaves open the chance of a House-Senate conference that lasts through June, since funding for federal highway programs expires June 30 under current law.

The Senate's two-year bill passed 74-22, a bipartisan vote that has prompted Democrats to call on the House to accept the Senate bill, which spends $109 billion over two years. In contrast, House Republicans have been split on what bill to advance, and earlier this month approved another straight extension, H.R. 4348, funding federal programs through September 30.

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