By Russell Berman - 02/23/12 10:53 PM EST
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) might significantly scale back his signature transportation bill in the face of opposition from conservative and centrist members of his own party.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Thursday that GOP leaders were mulling “a revamped approach” that would shorten the length of the highway reauthorization bill from five years and scrap a proposal to remove transit funding from the highway trust fund.
A central element of Boehner’s proposal would, for the first time, use royalties from an expansion of domestic energy production to finance infrastructure improvements. Yet critics of the bill pointed out that the revenues from oil drilling would cover only a small portion of the infrastructure spending, and the Congressional Budget Office projected that the GOP proposal would bankrupt the highway trust fund within a decade.
The Senate is pursuing a two-year reauthorization of the highway program that has bipartisan support, and Steel blamed Democratic leaders for an unwillingness to work with Republicans on a longer-term plan.
“Given Senate Democrats’ unwillingness to pursue a longer-term infrastructure and energy plan, House Republican leaders are considering a revamped approach that would retain the Speaker’s vision of linking infrastructure to expanded American energy production, and allow Republicans to stay on offense on energy and jobs,” Steel said.
GOP leaders are working with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) to determine a path forward, Steel said.
Conservatives have complained that the highway bill spends too much, while centrists in the Republican Conference, including some traditional Boehner allies, have criticized cuts to mass transit programs and changes to the long-term funding of the highway trust fund.
Boehner had already split the bill into three parts, two of which passed the House last week. His office said a revised bill would be attached to legislation to expand domestic energy production that lawmakers approved a week ago.
An extension of the highway and mass transit programs currently in place expires March 31. A shorter reauthorization would kick the longer-term extension into the next Congress, and potentially the next presidential administration.
Republicans said any changes would retain key reforms in Boehner’s bill, including cutting red tape to expedite permitting, giving greater flexibility to states, a ban on earmarks and the linking of energy production to infrastructure funding.
The retreat would be the second setback in a row for Boehner, who acceded to Democratic demands to extend the payroll tax cut without fully offsetting it with spending cuts.
When he announced the delay in the transportation bill last week, the Speaker said he wanted to allow time for a floor debate and consideration of amendments. Earlier in the week, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had told Republicans in a closed-door meeting that the whip count on the bill had come back even worse than for a debt-ceiling proposal in July, which Boehner had been forced to pull from the House floor before eventually passing it.
Democrats welcomed the move from Boehner.
“Now that the Republican leadership has shifted gears, we look forward to their reaching across the aisle and working with us to fashion a true bipartisan surface transportation bill,” said Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a vocal critic of the GOP bill. “We will meet them at the intersection of fiscal common sense and good public policy.”