By Russell Berman - 02/16/12 01:30 AM EST
House Republicans stumbled toward a congressional recess Wednesday as Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) delayed his signature highway bill and rank-and-file members grumbled about a tentative payroll tax deal.
While the payroll deal appeared poised to pass with Democratic help, the struggle to pass the highway bill, a jobs centerpiece, underscored a rocky start to 2012 for a House GOP hoping to hold its majority in the fall.
The announcement came less than a day after the party’s whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), informed lawmakers that the bill was falling well short of enough Republican votes to pass.
Many Republicans were already dispirited over a payroll tax deal that came together only after Boehner agreed to drop his longstanding demand that the package be fully offset with spending cuts.
A CNN poll released Tuesday offered more bad news for Republicans. It found that 77 percent of likely voters disapproved of the job performance of Republican leaders in Congress, a number unchanged from November. President Obama’s approval rating, meanwhile, hit 50 percent, its highest since last May.
No measure highlighted the tension and fissures within the conference more than the transportation bill, a priority for Boehner. In addition to Democratic opposition, the Speaker was having trouble with both senior and junior members of his own membership.
When Rep. Tim Scott (S.C.), a first-term member of the GOP leadership team, was asked by reporters Wednesday what he was hearing from fellow freshmen about the highway bill, he replied: “Nothing good.”
And in a closed-door conference meeting Wednesday morning, freshman Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) stood up to criticize the party leadership for failing to tell him that they were using his pension reform bill to help pay for the transportation bill, according to a source in the room. Ross opposes the highway bill and has said he wants his proposed changes to the federal pension program to go to deficit reduction, not to finance more spending.
Boehner has found himself increasingly isolated in trying to push the bill, named the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, across the House floor. Conservative Republicans say it costs too much, centrists say it cuts too much, the White House has threatened a veto and the Senate is moving forward with its own bipartisan reauthorization of the surface transportation program.
In Wednesday’s conference meeting, the Speaker told his rank and file that it was “more important that we do it right than that we do it fast.”
“Look, I know some of you still have concerns about this plan,” Boehner said, according to a source in the room. “That’s why I want you to have a chance to offer amendments, to have a full debate on the floor.”
Boehner on Tuesday announced he was breaking up the package into three pieces in a bid for more transparency and to help attract more votes. The first two parts — the major financing component and an energy bill expanding domestic oil drilling — will hit the House floor this week. The core transportation bill is the most troublesome element and will not come to the floor until after the House returns at the end of the month.
The legislation would pay for road and transit projects over the next five years and reauthorize the collection of the federal gas tax. It also authorizes expanded domestic oil and gas drilling and uses projected revenue to pay for some of the highway projects.
Lawmakers have filed nearly 300 amendments to the transportation bill, and GOP leaders are pledging an open — and lengthy — floor debate.
“Everybody is going to be heard. Everyone is going to have their amendment have an opportunity,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We’re not going to cut off debate and simply try to run it through quickly this week.”
More problems for Boehner surfaced on Wednesday.
Negotiators on the payroll tax extension conference committee agreed to use a budget-saving reform to the federal pension program to offset the cost of extending unemployment insurance benefits. The offset partially overlapped with a pension reform plan Republicans used to pay for the transportation bill, forcing a revision of that section.
Republicans were already looking at altering the energy section of the bill after the Congressional Budget Office projected that the transportation package would leave a $78 billion hole in the highway trust fund. GOP aides complained that the CBO did not give them enough credit for revenues that they estimated would come from expanded oil drilling.
Standing on the sidelines, Democrats watched Boehner’s bill unravel with a degree of schadenfreude. “It’s stuck in a tremendous mud hole right now,” Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.), the top Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said with a smile.
The current authorization for the surface transportation expires at the end of March, meaning the delay will leave just about a month to pass a House bill and negotiate a compromise with the Senate, which is poised to pass a vastly different version in the coming days.
Rahall called on Boehner to scrap his bill altogether and return to negotiations with Democrats.
“It is so badly flawed that you cannot rewrite the entire bill on the floor,” he said in an interview.
Mica said Republicans were forging ahead with their bill and predicted it would pass the House without wholesale changes.
“It has taken some interesting twists and turns, and it will continue, because it has to reflect the will of the majority of the members,” the chairman said. “There’s very, very strong support for a transportation bill. The secret is getting it adjusted so that it satisfies a majority of the members. I mean, it’s that simple.”
— Molly K. Hooper, Keith Laing and Bernie Becker contributed to this report.