Highway conference leaders trade blame for negotiation breakdown


Negotiations between the House and Senate on a new highway bill appeared to break down Wednesday amid recriminations between the leading Democrat and Republican on the conference committee.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairmen of the Senate and House panels in charge of the bill, traded accusations that each other’s party was holding up the talks.

“We’ve been passing back and forth big chunks of the bill, but there is a definite lack of urgency in the House and a definite lack of leadership like we had in the Senate,” Boxer said during a rally with construction groups outside the Capitol on Tuesday.

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Mica countered that the Senate is the chamber standing in the way of a possible compromise. He specifically criticized the Senate for being “unwilling to compromise at all” on House language that would require the Obama administration to approve items including the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

“I remain hopeful that we can reach a bicameral compromise with the Senate. However, I am disappointed in the fact that Senate negotiators have yet to move significantly on key House reform proposals,” Mica said Tuesday.

The statement from Mica was significant because it represented his sharpest public remark about the progress of the talks, which began more than a month ago.

The back-and-forth marks the first time the rhetoric of the respective chambers’ leaders has moved beyond niceties. Outside observers have been more pessimistic that the talks would succeed because of the lack of progress so far. 

Mica’s criticism of Boxer was echoed by other House Republicans, sometimes sharply. 

“It’s become very clear after we sent over a few counterproposals that she wants her bill,” House Transportation Committee member Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said on a conference call with reporters.



“Sen. Boxer is refusing to acknowledge that this is a bicameral process,” Shuster said. “The House matters. We are not going to be ignored.”



Boxer, for her part, gathered a group of Democratic senators for a photo-op in front of construction equipment to rail at House leaders for holding up a deal. 

If Congress is forced to approve a 10th short-term funding bill, she said, GOP leaders in the House would be to blame. She also warned that a short-term extension threatened to bankrupt the Highway Trust Fund used to pay for road improvements, a fund put in place by President Eisenhower. 

“That would be something, wouldn’t it?” she said. “For John Boehner and Eric Cantor to preside over the end of a program that was put in place by a Republican president.” 



Both sides suggested lawmakers might not reach a deal by June 30, when current legislation funding road projects runs out. 

“My guess is that later this week or very early next week, we’re going to have to start really considering that option in a serious way,” Shuster said of a short-term extension.

Shuster noted several key areas of disagreement between the chambers on the long-term funding bill. 

Among them, he said, is whether to spend another $3 billion on highway programs, like the Senate wants, but which House Republicans say is unacceptable given the state of the federal government’s finances.



“We can’t be in favor of that,” Shuster said.



The Senate also wants to mandate that some highway money go to beautification projects, while Republicans want this to be optional and decided by states.



Republicans have said expense is another key issue, but Shuster said the GOP has not yet revealed a bottom-line cost for the bill that it would accept. “The number that we care about in the House is that it’s paid for,” he said. “If we can do a longer-term bill and pay for it responsibly, that’s something we certainly would embrace.”

Shuster also said Republicans are pressing to include Keystone language, but that they have not made it a deal-breaker.

“My own personal view is it’s extremely important to have Keystone in this bill because it creates jobs,” he said. “I wouldn’t say there’s been a line drawn in the sand, but I think it’s important that we have it there.” 

Boxer said Tuesday that “there may be something to do with Keystone” in the final transportation compromise, but that it was important that lawmakers first reach an agreement on the road and transit funding issues at stake.



“We’ll deal with those,” Boxer said of what she called “extraneous issues” like Keystone. “I’ve said all along that I’m not concerned about dealing with those.”


— This story was updated at 8:31 p.m.