GOP shifts to offense in highway bill fight

House Republicans went on the offensive Wednesday in the fight over federal transportation funding, with a plan to pass an extension under normal House rules before they adjourn for recess.

A 90-day extension of current law that provides funding for road and transit projects, which expired in 2009, was sent to the House Rules Committee on Wednesday evening. 

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The move ended an effort to win Democratic support for the two-thirds majority required to pass the bill under suspension of the rules. 

It signals Republicans plan to pass their extension with just GOP votes, if necessary, and put pressure on the Democratically controlled Senate to accept it before it leaves town.

A Rules Committee-approved floor vote on the bill could come as early as Thursday. 

A key ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), told reporters that the GOP’s strategy on the highway bill seems to be to “pray the Senate doesn’t call our bluff.”

A spokesman for Boehner said Wednesday that the GOP had only moved to consideration of a 60-day extension because Democrats had said they would support it. The spokesman, Michael Steel, said that the fate of the extension of transportation funding is now “up to Democratic leadership.”

“It’s their choice as to whether to work in a bipartisan fashion or play political games with our country’s economy,” Steel said in a statement.

Democrats in both the House and Senate have hammered GOP leaders for their handling of the transportation extension for  most of the week.  They continued arguing Wednesday that the House should approve the two-year version of the transportation bill that was passed by the upper chamber earlier this month.  

“The Senate two-year bill can be a lifeboat for Speaker Boehner,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a news conference Wednesday. “He should take it before it’s too late.”

But when Schumer, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, was asked whether the Senate would reject a short-term extension from the House if it meant the expiration of federal transportation programs on Saturday, he demurred. 

“There’s an easy way to resolve it, which is for them to pass the Senate’s bill,” Schumer said in response.

Neither party wants to be forced to take the blame for a possible expiration of federal transportation funding.

A previous effort in the House to approve a 90-day extension of current law was unsuccessful, as was an effort to introduce a shorter 60-day measure. 

Republicans have blamed Democrats in both instances for not supporting a suspension of House rules that would have been necessary to consider the legislation without first sending it to the House Rules Committee. Democrats counter that there was still time for the lower chamber to consider the Senate’s $109 billion version. 

Neither argument completely states the obvious: that the closer lawmakers get to Saturday’s deadline, the less time there is for sending legislation back and forth between the chambers. 

Democrats in the House are persisting in their efforts to bring the Senate transportation bill to the lower chamber, however, petitioning the House Rules Committee to allow them to offer a substitute amendment containing the Senate version. 

“We understand that the Committee on Rules may schedule an emergency meeting to mark up a rule for consideration of H.R. 4276, the ‘Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012,’ later today,” Reps. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) and Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter to Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.). 

“It is far past the time to stop the political games and brinksmanship which have forced states to delay bid lettings and projects,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote. “We urge you to allow the House of Representatives to work its will: allow an up-or-down vote on this amendment.”

Democrats unveiled a website counting down the hours until the expiration of transportation funding, saying the only way to avert a transportation shutdown was for the House to “pass the bipartisan Senate bill.” 

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also weighed in, saying during an appearance on liberal commentator Bill Press’s radio show that Boehner needed to “step up and show a little leadership” in the debate over a new federal highway bill.

“Speaker Boehner can’t get his troops together,” said LaHood, who previously served in the House as a Republican lawmaker with Boehner before being appointed Transportation secretary by President Obama.

“He could put moderate Republicans — he could get them to vote for this bill — get a hundred Democrats who have agreed to vote for it and pass the Senate bill,” LaHood said of Boehner. “That would be good for America.”

If an extension is not passed before Saturday, the government’s authority to collect the 18.4 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax would expire.

Russell Berman contributed.