Sen. Boxer optimistic on highway bill

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Thursday that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has had a change of heart about the prospects of Congress passing a new federal highway bill this year.

LaHood was quoted in a Washington Post report earlier this week saying he believed "we’ll probably have to wait until next year to get to a surface transportation bill because of the huge differences."

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But Boxer said during a news conference at the Capitol Thursday that the transportation secretary has since made a U-turn on his prognosis. 

"I called him and I think he feels a little differently now," Boxer said.

The original comments by LaHood, which were first reported after President Obama delivered the State of the Union address Tuesday night, showed the former Republican lawmaker was pessimistic that his onetime colleagues would approve a new highway bill in an election year. Lawmakers have debated a renewal of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, which expired in 2009, for the better part of two years.

While they debated, members of the House and Senate approved eight short-term extensions of the last highway bill, including the most recent extension, which passed last fall and is set to expire March 31. 

LaHood told the newspaper he did not expect the debate on a multi-year bill to be resolved this year.
 
“Given the politics, the number of days that remain, the differences between what the Senate and the House are looking at, I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll have a surface transportation bill during this year,” he said.

Boxer said Thursday that LaHood was "concerned about the House approach, but he's very supportive of the bipartisan approach of the Senate."

The House said this week it would consider a five-year, $260 billion bill next week that ties highway spending to increase offshore oil drilling. The Democrat-controlled Senate has suggested passing instead a two-year, $109 billion surface transportation bill, and Obama called in the State of the Union for using money saved from reduced defense spending for road projects.

Boxer said of LaHood "of course he's concerned about the different approaches of the chambers." 

But she expressed confidence lawmakers would come to a consensus before the deadline.

"We're really talking about 2.8 million jobs, and we intend to get this done," she said Thursday. "I think the important thing to say today is that there is great progress."

"There's something called a conference committee," Boxer also said, adding that she and House Transportation Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) "get along very well." 

For his part, LaHood said Thursday during an appearance at the Washington Auto Show that the original article on his opinion did not include everything he said about the highway bill.

"We’ve got the president, the chairman in the House, the chairman in the Senate all talking about a surface transportation bill," LaHood said Thursday.  "Hallelujah! Maybe we’ll get a bill this year. I have my fingers crossed.

"None of that got in the story," he said of the Post article.  

Meanwhile, Boxer said the Senate Finance and Banking committees would mark up the highway bill next week, and she pointed out the measure has already been approved by her committee. 

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has also said it would mark up the highway bill next week.

Both the House and Senate proposals for the new highway bill are far less than the six-year, $556 billion Obama called for spending on transportation last year. 

— This post was updated with new information at 5:41 p.m.