Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) on Tuesday sought to break an impasse in highway bill negotiations by offering a proposal to their House counterparts.
The proposal did not include a House provision mandating that the Obama administration approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, however, and GOP leaders on the House Transportation Committee gave it an initially cool reception.
Boxer, the chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee who is leading the House-Senate conference, said the draft did not include non-transportation issues, but added those could be dealt with later.
“Right now, we delivered our transportation [proposal] to them,” she said. “The other [issues] we'll deal with after we do that. This is a transportation bill.”
Boxer’s effort seemed designed in part to fight back at the sense that the highway bill conference is in trouble.
While the proposal did not include controversial issues such as Keystone that have held up a deal, Boxer insisted delivering the draft showed progress was still being made in the month-long negotiations.
Inhofe wouldn’t comment on whether Keystone was in the bill, but said “contrary to press reports, the House and Senate are working together” and that “everyone wants a bill.”
Asked about press reports that negotiations were breaking down, Boxer said: “That's not what happened at all today.”
“Sen. Inhofe and I delivered a proposal to the House today that reflects a lot of their proposals," Boxer continued. “We have presented an offer to our House counterpart. It’s an offer that reflects their wishes ... because it's been four weeks and we've listened to them. We got a very warm reception over there, and we're excited, because we think this is going to move the process forward.”
Earlier Tuesday, a prominent House Democrat blamed Republicans in the chamber for the gridlock that has marked the transportation talks before Boxer's announcement of a draft Tuesday.
“They want to demand agreement by the Senate conferees on something they can’t get through the House of Representatives,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. Hoyer called the highway bill an example of the GOP decision “to pursue confrontation over consensus,” and said the failure to reach agreement on the legislation was one reason hiring has sputtered.
But a key Republican on the transportation conference committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), said the draft issued Tuesday by Boxer would have an easier time winning support from Republicans if it addressed issues like Keystone.
“If the administration got off its high horse on the Keystone pipeline, that might be the one thing that can bring everybody together,” Hatch told reporters at the Capitol. “I'm not saying that's the only issue,” Hatch continued. “There are other issues that are important as well, but that would go a long way toward getting people to the table and to work.”
—Russell Berman contributed to this report.