Dems try to steer GOP’s highway bill toward their priorities

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Rahall moved unsuccessfully to postpone the Transportation Committee’s consideration of the highway bill until next week. Before that effort failed, he said, “Democrats are prepared to offer many amendments to address deficiencies in this legislation.

"I hope all members of this committee had a full breakfast this morning, because I wouldn't want them to starve like we've been starving our infrastructure," Rahall continued. 

Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) defended his handling of the transportation bill, as well as the components of the legislation that Democrats worked to change Thursday. 

“About 80 percent of this bill was shared as late as last year,” Mica said. "I think we've been responsible from a fiscal standpoint, with the five years and maintaining the current funding.

"We keep the trust fund soluble for the foreseeable future,” he continued. “If you look at what the U.S. Senate has done, they drain the trust fund. This is probably the first transportation bill with no earmarks."

Other Republicans pointed out that Democrats did not pass a transportation bill while they were in control of the House from 2006 to 2010. 

“The last two transportation bills were passed in a time when there wasn’t 8.5 percent unemployment,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said. “The trust fund was flush. Those were very different times.”

Having decided on a 28-21 vote to continue with the markup, Republicans on the panel defeated a Democratic effort to include money for sidewalks and bike paths in the bill. 

Amendments from Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) were similarly scuttled by the committee’s Republican majority, and the fight over amendments continued into the evening.

“These are things that I think make small communities livable,” Edwards said as she introduced her amendment. “They give our states and our districts character."

“It’s something that does get people out of their cars [and] it mitigates congestion,” DeFazio added during debate over his amendment to providing funding for creating “safe routes” for schoolchildren.

Republicans on the committee argued that the money in the federal transportation bill should not be used on so-called “enhancements." 

“That’s for community to decide, not for our federal government to sit up here in Washington and decide,” Shuster said. “Not everybody uses a bike path. This is fundamental to the reforms that we are trying to include in this bill.”

Democrats countered that the federal transportation bill was intended to do more than build roads and bridges.

“Is this a comprehensive transportation bill or is this a highway bill?” Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) asked. “I'm confused."

Mica told Democrats that there would be opportunities for the infrastructure bill to be changed in an eventual conference with the Democratically controlled Senate. 

Brown said it was presumptuous for Republicans to assume the Senate would accept the House’s “bad bill.”

Mica countered by referencing the recent compromise between the House and Senate on a funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, which he did several times throughout Thursday’s hearing. 

"I sat in a conference this week,” he said. “When's the last time we had a transportation conference? There weren't 10 people in town who said we could get that done."

About halfway through the Transportation Committee hearing, Mica said there were still 80 amendments left to be considered. 

He urged members not to try and include all their pet projects in the transportation bill. 

“Every one of us would have written the bill differently,” he said.

Democrats on the Transportation Committee were not persuaded.

“This bill is a farce,” DeFazio said. 

"We're failing to distinguish between investment and consumption. The stimulus was consumption for the most part. This committee needs to be about investment."