Insiders pessimistic about highway bill talks

The committee of lawmakers appointed to negotiate a new federal highway bill will meet for the first time Tuesday, beginning their talks amid low expectations for a deal in a charged election-year environment.

Many observers, including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have expressed doubt that Congress will pass a multiyear bill before the November election.  

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But leaders of the 47-member panel from both House and Senate say they have a blueprint — hewing closely to their respective chamber’s approach — for the talks to defy the seemingly long odds.

“For the conference to be successful, it must include significant transportation program reforms and ensure that needed jobs will be created,” a spokesman for House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said in a statement provided to The Hill on Monday.

“Now is the time to set aside our personal wish lists and focus on the issue at hand — the reauthorization of a bill that is absolutely essential to our economy,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) agreed in a statement after conferees were first announced last month. “Controversy should not be part of the conference, and we should come together for the good of the country.”

Boxer shepherded a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill through the Senate earlier this year. Mica tried to do the same in the House with a five-year, $260 billion version of the bill, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Members of the lawmakers’ respective committees will now begin negotiations based on the Senate transportation bill and a pair of House-passed short-term extensions of current law that kept funds flowing to road and transit projects.

The talks are likely to center, at least at the outset, on a controversial cross-country pipeline that has emerged as an anti-Obama rallying cry for Republicans. The House version of the transportation and infrastructure bill approves the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. 

The Senate’s plan omits the Keystone provision, and Democrats have decried its inclusion in the highway negotiations.

  White House press secretary Jay Carney has called the Keystone pipeline provision “noxious” to the highway negotiations.

“What Congress is asking — in this highly politicized, highly partisan way, attaching a provision on the Keystone pipeline to a piece of legislation that has nothing to do with it ... in advance, blind, approve a pipeline, a proposal for which does not exist — but we’ll approve it anyway — a foreign pipeline built by a foreign company emanating from foreign territory to cross U.S. borders,” Carney said in a White House press briefing last month.

A group of business leaders pressed lawmakers Monday to make sure the Keystone approval stays in the final highway bill, should one emerge from the conference committee. 

“As you commence your work on maintaining vital American transportation investments, Business Roundtable urges you to vote ‘Yes’ on the provision included in the House-passed version of the transportation bill that would expedite approval of the Keystone XL pipeline extension,” said the letter from the Business Roundtable.

Even without the Keystone dramatics, transportation supporters say, the stakes for the congressional talks are high.

“As House and Senate conferees begin negotiations on surface transportation legislation tomorrow, nearly 2 million current jobs, and up to 1 million new jobs, are at stake in what remains a slow economic recovery,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind said in a statement released Monday.

“More stonewalling will not help families pay mortgages, college tuition or healthcare bills,” Wytkind continued. “Members of Congress have a choice to make. They can make a deal based upon the bipartisan Senate bill (MAP-21), or they can force a debate on controversial provisions — such as privatization giveaways to foreign interests — in the House bill (H.R. 7) that never even made it to the floor for a vote.”

Many observers will be watching closely to see whether House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) get involved in the highway negotiations.

Often, tough-to-resolve issues in bicameral negotiations are bumped up to the leaders of the respective chambers, but leaders of the transportation committees plan to work out the differences themselves.

“I am sure that every member of the conference, Democrat or Republican, House or Senate, understands how critical it is to swiftly pass a comprehensive transportation bill that is a deficit-neutral reform measure that will preserve or create millions of jobs and thousands of businesses,” Boxer said in a statement announcing the conference committee’s first meeting last month.

A spokesman for Boehner, however, said the Speaker would be keeping a close eye on the talks.

“The Speaker works closely with conferees, keeping open lines of communications with our members about ongoing negotiations and the goals we are working to achieve,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said Monday in a statement provided to The Hill.

A Senate Democratic aide said Reid had confidence in his conferees and would give them a long leash in the negotiations.

“Each Senate Democratic conferee is a leader in the caucus, with a record of forging bipartisan agreements,” the aide said. “Sen. Reid’s confident conferees will work quickly with Republicans to determine a path forward.”

Ben Geman contributed to this report.