House unlikely to vote on reworked highway bill upon return from recess

The House is unlikely to consider a new version of a Republican highway bill when lawmakers return next week, as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) revamps the legislation to attract more support.

GOP leaders are reworking the $260 billion measure after facing resistance from conservatives and centrists in the Republican conference, along with blanket opposition from Democrats.

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Multiple House GOP aides said Friday they did not expect the scaled-back legislation to be ready by next week, and details of the changes to the bill were scarce.

Boehner had initially hoped to pass the legislation — a five-year reauthorization of the surface transportation programs — before the President’s Day congressional recess. Aides say the new bill is expected to more closely align with a bipartisan version that is advancing in the Senate, a two-year reauthorization with a price tag of $109 billion. The White House has endorsed the Senate version and threatened a presidential veto of Boehner’s bill.

The current extension of the surface transportation programs expires on March 31, meaning the House and Senate would have just a few weeks to strike an agreement if the House doesn’t act until the week of March 5. The Senate hopes to finish its bill next week.

But that measure has hit a few roadblocks of its own in the upper chamber, as lawmakers there were unable to win the 60 votes needed to limit amendments. 

Supporters of the transportation bill in the Senate have complained that what they say are non-germane amendments, such as a measure from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) regarding foreign aid to Egypt, are slowing momentum for the measure. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to open the amendment process again on Monday, according to his office, and hopes to reach an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as early as Tuesday on which amendments to allow. 

Republican leaders in the House, meanwhile, split up and then delayed the transportation measure last week after it became clear they could not wrangle enough GOP votes to pass it. Conservatives complained about the high cost, while Republicans from urban and suburban districts opposed cuts to Amtrak and changes to the long-term funding of mass transit.

As of late last week, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters he still expected the bill to pass the House without wholesale changes. But party leaders finally came to the conclusion that even with an open amendment process on the floor, that was not going to happen.

“The ship was sinking, and they kept trying to save it,” a senior GOP aide said.

While the overall reduction in spending could attract some conservative votes, the aide said Friday the changes were designed to win support from about 15 to 25 Republicans concerned about cuts to mass transit, along with at least some Democrats.

The proposal to de-link mass transit money from the highway trust fund will be removed, and Republicans are likely to drop a measure that would offset the cost of the bill with changes to the federal employee pension program, the senior GOP aide said.

Yet Boehner intends to keep a central element of the legislation that would use revenues from an expansion of domestic energy production to finance infrastructure improvements.

“This pivot clearly shows this isn’t just about passing a messaging bill” for House Republicans, the aide said. “This shows [Boehner] really wants to pass an energy and infrastructure bill.”

A Republican source said party leaders were also reaching out to conservative groups opposed to the original proposal about the changes, although they were not circulating a specific plan.

While Democrats applauded Boehner’s shift, they did not promise their votes.

A House Democratic aide said Friday that no one from the minority party had been contacted yet about the transportation bill, which no Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted for during a marathon 18-hour markup earlier this month.  

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a chief critic of the mass transit cuts, said in a statement he still had concerns with the bill, and Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) said in an interview that he would wait to see the details before weighing in.

Crowley said he had “a lot” of issues with the GOP bill and that the continued inclusion of a provision to approve the Keystone oil sands pipeline would be a problem.

“If that is in there, I think that will be something that will turn off a good number of House Democrats,” Crowley said.

The Keystone provision was included in an energy component of the package that passed the House separately late last week. A Republican leadership aide said the new transportation bill would be attached to that measure.

The conservative Heritage Action group also welcomed the shift, but an official with the organization said it had not seen enough details to determine whether to drop its opposition to the bill.


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