By Russell Berman and Keith Laing - 02/15/12 12:40 AM EST
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday moved to split up a major House transportation bill as Republicans looked to smooth its passage over objections from the right and left.
GOP leaders announced that the $260 billion highway bill would come to the House floor this week in three pieces, using a procedural maneuver that would allow the bill to be recombined after each component passes.
“They said the whip card came back a little worse than the debt-ceiling whip count, which wasn’t very pretty way back when,” he said in reference to a time in July when Boehner was forced to pull a GOP debt ceiling proposal off the floor when he couldn’t secure the votes to pass it.
While Republicans argued that the move adhered to the party’s commitment to transparency, it also served as an acknowledgement that Boehner was having trouble cobbling together the votes to send the bill — one of his top priorities — to the Senate. That effort was complicated further on Tuesday with the release of a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report finding that the GOP legislation would leave a $78 billion hole in the highway trust fund.
With Republicans also planning to pass an extension of the payroll tax cut that would add $100 billion to the deficit, members found themselves in the position of voting for two bills that would add red ink to the federal balance sheet.
The centerpiece of Boehner’s 2012 jobs agenda, the highway bill provides funding for infrastructure projects while expanding oil drilling and using the royalties to help offset the cost of new spending. But the legislation has drawn complaints from across the political spectrum. Democrats say the bill shortchanges safety and bankrupts the highway trust fund, and most oppose using oil drilling to pay for infrastructure improvements.
Additionally, the White House threatened Tuesday to veto the House transportation bill, citing provisions to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, expand offshore drilling and approve the controversial Keystone pipeline.
“Because this bill jeopardizes safety, weakens environmental and labor protections, and fails to make the investments needed to strengthen the Nation’s roads, bridges, rail, and transit systems, the president’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto this legislation,” the White House said in a statement of policy.
Yet Boehner’s biggest challenge has come from within his own ranks. Conservative groups say the bill costs too much, while more centrist Republicans near major urban centers oppose its cuts to Amtrak and other mass transit programs.
Republicans on Tuesday were sorting through nearly 300 amendments that were submitted for the bill, trying to craft an open but not chaotic floor debate. The GOP hopes to finish the bill by Friday before a weeklong congressional recess.
Under the Speaker’s plan, the package will be split into an energy bill, a transportation bill and a bill that pays for much of the new spending through changes to the federal pension system. Aides say the energy and federal pension bills could pass on largely party-line votes, while the core transportation bill will be a bigger lift.
“Republicans pledged to pass bills in a more transparent manner and reverse the era of quickly moving massive bills across the floor without proper examination,” Boehner said in a statement issued with the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.). “Accordingly, the energy/infrastructure jobs plan will be considered on the floor in the same manner in which it was written and voted upon in committee — in separate pieces, allowing each major component of the plan to be debated and amended more openly, rather than as a single ‘comprehensive’ bill with limited debate and limited opportunity for amendment.”
Democrats immediately assailed the move, saying it was a sign of GOP division to break up the bill just a day before it was to hit the House floor.
“At best, this is a thinly veiled attempt to force through bad legislation that many of your own members do not support,” wrote Democratic members of the House Rules Committee in a letter to Dreier. “At worst, this new approach is a direct violation of your own leadership’s stated commitment to transparency and undermines the legislative process for the sake of political expediency.”
Democrats oppose the package as a whole, and a Republican critic of the bill, Rep. Steven LaTourette (Ohio), predicted last week that “not one Democrat” would vote for it on the floor. But a Democratic leadership aide said Tuesday that the GOP decision to split up the legislation could draw a few Democratic votes for individual pieces of the plan, such as the energy component that expands domestic oil production.
“Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to this bill because we think it is not good for the country. It destroys jobs and undermines safety,” the second-ranking House Democrat, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), told reporters Tuesday.
He would not say whether Democrats would whip against each individual piece of the transportation package. Hoyer said the GOP move to break up the bill “is reflective of the divisions within their party on their own bill.”
Democrats also seized on the CBO report that the GOP bill would create a $78 billion gap in the highway trust fund over a decade to argue the legislation was fiscally irresponsible. “The Republican leadership’s partisan signature ‘jobs’ bill is not sustainable and would lead America’s transportation programs down a reckless path toward bankruptcy,” said Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.), the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Republicans on the committee said the CBO didn’t give them enough credit for revenues that come in through the domestic energy provisions. “House Republicans are looking at options to address that but will ensure that this bill is fair, paid for, doesn’t borrow and doesn’t raise taxes,” a GOP committee aide said.