Boehner struggling for Republican unity

Deep fissures are dividing House Republicans on the highway bill and 2013 budget — and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is making late, urgent efforts to restore unity.

During a closed-door conference meeting Wednesday he implored conservatives to support five-year, $260 billion transportation legislation that has been stalled for weeks, warning them that if they failed to do so, they have to swallow the $109 billion Senate bill or “something that looks just like it.”

According to a source in the room, Boehner said, “You don’t like that? I don’t like it either. Why would any of us like it? 

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“It means punting on the opportunity to pass an infrastructure bill that bears our stamp. It means giving up on the opportunity to make sure a bill is enacted that is responsibly paid for; that has full-scale reforms in it; and most importantly, that is linked to increased production of American energy,” Boehner said. 

“But right now, it’s the plan,” Boehner added.

At the same time, Boehner’s chief lieutenant, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), planned to meet Thursday morning with Budget Committee members to help resolve a dispute over 2013 spending levels.

The committee is drafting the party’s budget resolution, which GOP leaders want to unveil the week of March 19. Senior members on the Appropriations Committee are urging the leadership to stick to a spending cap of $1.047 trillion agreed to as part of last year’s debt-limit deal with the White House. Conservatives are pushing for a lower number of $931 billion, and lawmakers predicted that Cantor could help broker a compromise.

With major legislative action likely to soon yield to election-year politicking, the non-binding budget resolution and the transportation bill are two of the remaining big-ticket items on the House docket.

For Boehner, the issues present him with the familiar challenge of navigating between lawmakers inclined to strike deals on one side of his conference, and more confrontational conservatives on the other.

In his private exhortation on Wednesday, the Speaker made a broader plea for unity as the election season draws closer. 

 “The American people entrusted us with the majority in the House. What we do with it is up to us,” he said. “We can use it to take steps together, one at a time, toward the vision we share. Or we can do nothing. We can squander the time we’ve been given … allowing our internal disagreements to paralyze us.

“The good news is we have a winning message,” Boehner added. “The bad news is that in order for that message to mean anything, we have to back it up with action.”

On the transportation bill, GOP leaders returned to a proposal that had been all but discarded last month in the face of opposition from both conservatives and centrists.

The Senate appears likely to pass its two-year bill in the coming days, and Boehner has one last opportunity to come up with a House offer and avoid an embarrassing defeat on one of his top 2012 priorities. He had hoped to use the legislation to reform a traditional earmark haven by using an expansion of domestic energy production to fund infrastructure enhancements and supplement the dwindling highway trust fund.

The surface transportation programs expire on March 31. The earliest the House would vote on its measure — if it comes to the floor at all — would be after next week’s recess.

The Speaker acknowledged in the closed-door meeting that the leadership’s attempts to find the right formula had not been successful thus far. “In recent weeks we’ve run every possible combination up the flagpole: a five-year bill. An 18-month bill. We haven’t been able to get to 218 on any of them,” Boehner said in the meeting. “And so consequently, the plan as it stands right now is to let the Senate pass a bill, and take up something that looks just like it.”

Boehner is trying to win over conservatives, but he also restored mass transit funding to the bill in an effort to satisfy some members from urban and suburban districts.

But it was not enough to satisfy one key Boehner ally, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), who said after the conference meeting he would oppose the bill.

“I can’t support the original bill, and they know that,” LaTourette said. “But I don’t think they’re looking at me. I think they’re looking at some of the fiscal conservatives who have reasons that may be a little bit different than mine.”

Another senior Republican who backs mass transit funding, Rep. Pete King (N.Y.), said he would also vote no.

Lawmakers said members gave impassioned speeches in the conference meeting both for and against the bill.

Freshman Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) said she supported the leadership measure.

“What we don’t want to have is no voice,” she said. “I don’t want to just take the Senate bill and end up passing it. I want us to have a House bill that we can compare to the Senate bill, go to conference and work out our differences.”

The transportation chairman who shepherded the bill through committee, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), said he felt good after the meeting.

“I think people can be accommodated,” he said. “I came in concerned, but I leave very reassured that there’s strong support for what we started out to do.”

Conservative Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) said he had been undecided on the legislation but was now leaning yes. Whether other members had been moved off the fence, he said, was unclear.

— Erik Wasson contributed to this report.