Senate highway bill faces House roadblock

Republican and Democratic leaders in the House have come to a rare agreement: the Senate’s highway bill is looking to be a nonstarter in the lower chamber.

House lawmakers in both parties had their share of gripes with the Senate bill Thursday, both in terms of its contents and how it came together. And with just days left before funding for highway projects runs dry, they upped the pressure Thursday on the Senate to take up a House-passed short-term extension and continue the debate after the August recess.

ADVERTISEMENT
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pushed the Senate to pass the House’s five-month extension of highway funding, arguing that the chamber’s efforts to push through a six-year bill are running out of time.

Pelosi told reporters Thursday that a plan hammered out by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellRyan seeks to put stamp on GOP in Trump era Trump and Ryan to speak by phone Bill would require nominees to release tax returns MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerThe Hill's 12:30 Report Sen. Boxer fires back at Sanders aide: 'He wasn't there' Sanders aide questions Boxer's story about fearing for her safety MORE (D-Calif.) could not be passed by July 31, when highway funds run dry. Instead, she said the time had come for the Senate to take up the House bill and continue the funding debate after the August recess.

“So you'd hope that they would follow the path that we set here in a very bipartisan way ... the fact is, July 31st is fast upon us,” she said.

With a week left until the deadline, lawmakers are looking at a dwindling set of options. There is the slim likelihood the House takes up the Senate bill. The two chambers could work out an even shorter compromise — perhaps until the end of September — to buy time for a longer fix after the August recess.

Or the Senate could take up the House bill, with a good chance it will add a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, the expired lender reviled by conservatives.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerOvernight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return GOP senator: Reid's 'ramblings' are 'bitter, vulgar, incoherent' MORE (R-Ohio) said that while the Senate bill is still a work in progress, there was “a lot of concern” among his colleagues about the package. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Thursday afternoon the Senate should take up the House bill.

“The best bit of advice is to continue to urge the Senate to accept our bill,” he said on the House floor.

Senate leaders were still searching for a way forward on that chamber’s highway package, after members narrowly agreed to continue debate on it Wednesday. It appears the Senate will need to work through the weekend on the legislation, which was still being altered Thursday to address member complaints.

The prospect of having to pass a massive transportation bill with little time to review it and no chance to fundamentally alter it was not well received by House members of either party. Instead, there was bipartisan agreement that the Senate should take up the House bill, and continue the debate another day.

“I actually think our solution is just a better solution,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

Members were quick to point out that the Senate bill, funding highway projects for six years, only raises funds to cover those costs for three. Add to the fact that the Senate is attempting to pass a huge package with just days to spare before the deadline, and House members see plenty of perks to their short-term extension that allows a longer debate.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, said he prefers passing the House’s five-month patch now so that both chambers can negotiate a long-term bill that’s fully funded.

“It’s not really a long-term bill,” DeFazio said of the Senate measure. “We need a robust six-year bill with six years of funding at higher levels. This is essentially a status quo bill with two or three years of funding. That’s no huge improvement.”

And there were bipartisan complaints in the House about the fact that the Senate plan would give House members engaged in transportation policy effectively no say on highways for the next six years.

“It basically locks out our House authorizers completely ... I’m not ready to let that happen,” said Rep. Charles BoustanyCharles BoustanyOvernight Finance: GOP chairman moves to censure IRS chief | Puerto Rico deal close? | Fed eyes June rate hike | Obama's secret meeting with China's richest man Dozens of House members promote tax bills at hearing Lawmakers push back on Obama drug pricing initiative MORE Jr. (R-La.). “'Just take it or leave it,' that’s not how this place should work.”

DeFazio said that his Senate counterparts have not been giving him regular updates about the status of the highway bill and further noted that the Senate could attach objectionable amendments during its lengthy debate.

"They’re going to go through an amendment process. Who knows what egregious things they might attach to it," DeFazio said.

As part of the highway debate, the Senate will consider an amendment reauthorizing the bank, which helps U.S. corporations finance business deals abroad. The White House has also been aggressive in its push to revive the bank, as President Obama specifically called for action on it Wednesday.

Republicans that favor a renewal of the bank predicted easy passage should the Senate pursue that path.

“I think there would be more than enough votes here,” said Cole. “It’s not often I agree with Nancy Pelosi on political strategy, but in this case I do.”

Meanwhile, conservatives vowed to fight vehemently against its inclusion, even if it was unclear what options they would have.

Asked if he’d have an issue if Ex-Im were attached to the House bill, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) quickly responded: “Heck, yeah.”

Rep. David SchweikertDavid SchweikertSenate races heating up Tea Party class reassesses record Lawmakers to DOD: Reject 'no touch' policy sought by 9/11 plotter MORE (R-Ariz.) said there would be a “substantial bloc” of Republicans that would oppose such a maneuver vehemently. But when told Republicans in favor of the Ex-Im bank predicted passage, he said it would be bad for the party to go down that route.

“But would it pass with the majority of the majority? That’s the magic question,” he said. “Are we going to ... once again increase divisions within the family, as they say?”

With days to go, House lawmakers were digging in against swallowing a massive Senate bill.

“We’re not going to take it,” Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), a member of the GOP whip team, said about the Senate plan.

Ross pointed out that the Senate wasn’t just trying to jam the House. The Senate, he said, was trying to force the House to accept a massive bill with longstanding implications on transportation policy.

“That’s what, 1,100 pages by the time they get done with it?” Ross said. “I don’t see that they’re going to expect us to do something that lands on our desk on Monday or Tuesday, or maybe even Wednesday, and expect to pass it out by July 31.”

—Cristina Marcos and Mike Lillis contributed.