Speaker John Boehner is delaying a vote on the $260 billion transportation bill that was scheduled this week.
Boehner (R-Ohio) told his conference Wednesday morning that it was "more important that we do it right than that we do it fast" in explaining his decision, a clear signal GOP leaders lack the votes to win approval of the package.
The GOP bill would pay for road and transit projects over the next five years and reauthorize the collection of the federal gas tax. It also authorizes expanded domestic oil and gas drilling, and projects revenue would be used to pay for some of the projects.
A Congressional Budget Office report on Monday, however, said the bill would leave the highway trust fund $78 billion in the red over 10 years. Republicans contend CBO underestimated increased federal revenue from expanded drilling.
Boehner acknowledged that some members have concerns with the plan. But he told members that rising gas prices could help them win public support for the drilling provisions in the bill, which Democrats have called a "poison pill."
"This debate is a debate we want to have," Boehner said. "ABC News reported last night that we will soon see $4-a-gallon gas prices. Maybe higher. Certainly this summer will see the highest gas prices in years. Your constituents saw that report, and they’ll be talking about it. When they do, tell them about this bill that we’re working on.”
Boehner faced a tough vote this week even after breaking the measure into three pieces for a series of House votes intended to ease passage.
Democrats have called on Boehner to scrap the entire transportation bill, which has come under fire from the right for spending more than revenue that the federal gas tax brings in and the left for cutting funding for public transit, pedestrian and bicyclist projects. The Speaker could count on few Democratic votes in the House, and President Obama threatened to veto the bill if it passes.
Another complication for the Speaker arose on Tuesday night, when negotiators on the payroll tax extension agreed to use a federal pension reform to pay for extending unemployment insurance benefits and a fix to the Medicare reimbursement rate. The change partially overlaps with an offset in the highway bill, so Republicans must find another provision to ensure the highway legislation is fully paid for.
"They said the whip card came back a little worse than the debt-ceiling whip count, which wasn't very pretty way back when," said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), a critic of the bill.
Critics of the GOP transportation bill in the House had pointed to the Senate's shorter, less controversial measure as an alternative. It received 85 votes in a floor vote to end debate last week. Supporters said the Senate bill, which would spend $109 billion over the next years and does not include drilling revenues, was on the fast track to passage in the upper chamber, but its momentum has slowed down this week as senators have offered unrelated amendments.
—This story was updated at 11:06 a.m.