House Republicans facing big test as $260 billion highway bill heads for cliff

House Republican leaders are desperately searching for the votes to pass their $260 billion transportation bill this week.

The political right and left have attacked the legislation, and even Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is making no bold predictions that he can cobble together the 218 votes needed for passage.

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Conservatives claim the bill is an unaffordable boondoggle, while Democrats and prominent centrist Republicans such as Rep. Peter King (N.Y.) say it would gut funding for public transportation, bike paths and pedestrians.

“I want a dedicated stream of funding for mass transit,” said King, a committee chairman whose Long Island district includes a large number of residents who commute to New York City by train.

Boehner has made the legislation a priority and the election-year centerpiece of the House GOP’s jobs agenda. The measure uses revenues from an expansion of domestic oil drilling to offset some of the cost of maintenance and improvements to roads and bridges.


The bill also contains no earmarks, which have traditionally been liberally sprinkled throughout transportation legislation. This cheers fiscal hawks, but makes it harder for Boehner to win support from rank-and-file members who in the past have enjoyed directing federal largesse toward their pet projects.

“Will it pass? For the good of the country, I sure hope so,” Boehner said during a speech Thursday to the Conservative Political Action Conference. “But that’s not up to me, that’s up to the House.”

Boehner might equally have said he hopes so for the good of his majority: A new poll conducted for The Hill of 1,000 likely voters showed that 53 percent think it is very important to fix the nation’s bridges, roads and other infrastructure, and another 35 percent say it is somewhat important.

Boehner faces an additional problem: Passing the bill will depend on “yes” votes from those recalcitrant Tea Party conservatives who swept him into the Speakership in 2010 and who have spent most of the past year railing against excess government spending.

Heritage Action, the political arm for the conservative Heritage Foundation, pointed out that the original proposal from Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) limited spending to the $40 billion brought in each year by the federal gas tax.

Heritage circulated Mica’s news release from July 2011, in which he said the committee he led was limited by “House rules and budget constraints.”

GOP leaders have pledged an open, but not unlimited, amendment process on the floor, hoping that allowing changes to be proposed will bring more Republicans on board. A final vote is slated for Friday.

Heritage Action and the Club for Growth oppose the bill, and two reliable Boehner allies, King and Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), are among a group of centrist Republicans likely to vote no. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a conservative running for the Senate, is also expected to reject the legislation.

Objections to the bill vary widely, from its cuts to mass transit programs and Amtrak to alteration of the long-term revenue source for transportation. 

Even one of Mica’s lieutenants on the transportation panel, Aviation subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri (R-Wis.), voted against the bill in committee because, his office said, “Wisconsin took a big cut.”

A Petri spokesman told The Hill that the lawmaker’s concerns remain unaddressed.

LaTourette listed five problems with the bill, including provisions that are considered hostile to labor unions. He has agreed to “collect concerns” from GOP members and meet with Mica to see if they can be addressed during the amendment process.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his chief deputy, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), have held dozens of listening sessions with Republican colleagues, hoping to assuage their concerns.

Some sent a letter to party leaders Thursday seeking the removal of a provision opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil drilling.

“Opening ANWR for exploration and development raises serious questions from both a fiscal and environmental perspective,” wrote GOP Reps. Charlie Bass (N.H.), Dave Reichert (Wash.), Robert Dold (Ill.), Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.) and Timothy Johnson (Ill.). “We believe that this measure can achieve broader support and better force Senate consideration if ANWR were removed.”

Boehner might also have trouble with the Florida delegation over expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) said he’ll support the bill, but predicted many of his Florida colleagues will not. Florida GOP freshman Rep. Allen West said he is still studying the measure, but expressed reservations about drilling off the Gulf Coast.

Complicating the vote count for Boehner is that Democrats are expected to oppose the bill en masse.

“Not one Democrat is going to vote for it,” LaTourette predicted.

Democrats have noted that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has scathingly criticized the legislation, reportedly describing it as “the worst transportation bill [he’s] ever seen during 35 years in public service.”

This is particularly stinging because LaHood, a Republican, served in the House with Boehner for 14 years. The Speaker said Thursday that he had not spoken to LaHood about the legislation.

Asked by The Hill to respond to LaHood’s comments, Boehner said he is “committed to a process around here that lets all members participate.”

“I don’t guide everything that goes on in every committee every day, or for that matter what happens on the floor every day,” he said. “So the committees have produced a bill. There are some concerns about it. That’s why we have a floor process that I expect will be more open than what we’ve seen in the past on a bill like this.”

The Senate, meanwhile, has moved forward a bipartisan plan backed by the White House that would spend $109 billion on infrastructure over two years. The bill, which uses money from the highway trust fund and tax loopholes to counter Boehner’s oil-drilling suggestion, received 85 votes in a procedural vote last week.

When the legislation hit the floor, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) noted that they do not often agree on much.

“We are here as partners in this bill,” Boxer said. “We are not partners in a lot of things.”

— Andres Feijoo contributed to this article.