Speaker Boehner faces tough test on $260 billion transportation bill

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) faces a difficult task in winning House approval of a $260 billion transportation bill that has come under attack from the right and the left.

The transportation measure is being framed as the House GOP’s jobs bill, making it critically important to Boehner and his party that it get through the lower chamber.

Yet Boehner will probably have to do it with only Republican votes, and many conservatives are skeptical the nation can afford the expensive legislation at a time of high deficits.

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Democrats made clear in a nearly 16-hour committee hearing this week that they are out to slam the brakes on the legislation. No Democrats approved the measure in a committee vote this week, and one Republican, Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), joined them in opposing it.

Amplifying the pressure on the GOP was the news Friday that the national unemployment rate had dropped to 8.3 percent, its lowest level since the beginning of the Obama administration.

The figures give new momentum to Obama and Democrats, who will argue Obama’s policies are paying off. Republicans argue Obama’s policies are hurting the economy, and they want to provide their own policy answers.

The transportation bill, which would authorize new domestic drilling for oil and gas to pay for highways, rails and bridges, is a key to their messaging efforts.  



Conservative activists, however, are arguing the transportation bill is too expensive.


“As Congress gears up for another year, reining in spending and debt should top the agenda, but one issue heading squarely against that priority is reauthorization of the transportation program,” the conservative Heritage Foundation said this week on a post on its website.

"It is past time for Washington to stop spending money on wasteful projects and to live within its means,” the blog post continued. “This should start with the first major opportunity of the year: reauthorization of the transportation program. Rather than increasing spending and then looking for new sources of revenue to pay for it, Congress should eliminate wasteful transportation programs and reduce spending so that the program lives within its means.”

Daniel Horowitz at the Madison Project also ripped the bill.

"Republicans talk incessantly about the need to cut the deficit, yet they are once again proposing a policy that will actually augment the deficit,” he wrote in a posting also picked up by the influential RedState blog.

The criticism from conservative groups could cost Boehner GOP votes on the floor, and the Speaker can’t count on help from Democrats either.

"The piece that we passed 3 o’clock this morning out of the transportation committee is the worst bill I have seen in the 30 years I’ve been elected,” Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) scolded on the House floor on Friday.

“I’ve been in transportation 10 years in the Florida House and close to 20 here, and it was truly the worst bill I’ve ever seen,” Brown said. 

The traditional way to win support for a highway bill was to include earmarks for local projects, but a self-imposed ban removes that possibility for this bill.

A spokesman for Petri said his ‘no’ vote at the committee level was related to cuts in projects in his home state.

“Wisconsin took a big a cut in funds,” a spokesman for Petri told The Hill. “We’re looking into things that might be done to improve the situation.”

Veteran GOP lawmakers and strategists acknowledge the earmark ban will make moving the bill tougher.

“Theoretically it shouldn’t be a factor, but from a standpoint of practicality, you have one less weapon to be persuasive to an individual member,” Republican strategist Al Cardenas said in a telephone interview.

Few bills are expected to go anywhere in this election year, which could help Boehner’s cause.

“It does neither party any good to have a year where nothing gets done,” Cardenas said. “Some of these members have to go home to the districts and they’re running for re-election.

“You have to spend some money on a highway bill, but you have to be constrained by the current fiscal situation,” Cardenas continued. “At some point there’s a sweet spot there.”

Cardenas also said some Democrats might eventually relent in their objections to the GOP’s highway bill.

“They’re all playing hardball right now, but each chamber has to pass something,” he said.

Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) expressed optimism this week that he can find a way to get the first multi-year transportation bill since 2005 through the sharply-divided Congress.

After all, Congress this week finally approved a long-term bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration.

“There weren't 10 people in town who said we could get that done," Mica said.