Senate Dems hope transportation bill reprises their payroll tax cut victory

Senate Democrats and House Republicans are set to battle over transportation legislation that could have the same political dynamics as the payroll tax holiday, which gave Democrats a big victory.

The Senate bill, a two-year measure costing $109 billion, has strong bipartisan support. It is the product of a compromise between Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of the Senate’s most liberal members, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the chamber’s most outspoken conservatives.

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The legislation has bogged down over controversial amendments but is expected to pass with strong bipartisan support.

House GOP leaders, by contrast, are expected to move a transportation authorization bill that passes largely along party lines. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) initially favored a five-year $260 billion transportation bill funded largely by an expansion of domestic oil and gas drilling.

That bill attracted very little Democratic support, and wariness among GOP conservatives over the package’s cost forced House leaders to set it aside.

While House Republicans have yet to reveal the details of their revised transportation bill, it is expected to appeal primarily to Republicans and attract little bipartisan support.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who played a big role in shaping the Democratic strategy during the payroll tax holiday fight, said he sees the transportation debate setting up in the same way.

“The public wants a transportation bill — it’s a jobs bill,” Schumer said. “Most Americans believe government does have a role in building highways, specifically since the overwhelming high percentage of this comes from the gas tax.

“If the House can’t get its act together and pass this, it’s going to hurt them just like the payroll tax hurt them,” Schumer said. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said the Senate would have the upper hand in bicameral negotiations if it passed a bill with bipartisan support and the House does not.

“Regardless of whether it’s a transportation bill or whatever the measure may be, if you can demonstrate bipartisan support coming out of one body, people pay attention to that. It then becomes the viable solution,” Murkowski said.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, disputed any parallel between the debates over the payroll tax holiday and the transportation bill.

“That is inane gibberish. President Obama specifically asked for a paid-for yearlong payroll tax extension. The House passed such a bill. Sen. Schumer and the Democratic leadership in the Senate totally failed to even introduce one — let alone pass it on a ‘bipartisan’ vote.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) deadlocked over a bill to extend the payroll tax holiday for a full year.

Instead, they agreed to a two-month stopgap measure that also extended unemployment benefits and preserved Medicare payments to doctors. That measure passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 89-10, putting heavy pressure on House Republicans to accept it.

Boehner and his conference initially balked, arguing it made little sense to legislate tax policy in eight-week increments, but ultimately they backed down, after Senate Republicans called on them to accept the upper chamber’s compromise.

Democratic leaders believe House Republicans will face pressure again to accept the Senate’s position — or move significantly closer to it — if the transportation bill attracts solid support from Senate Democrats and Republicans.

Otherwise, Democrats will roll out the same arguments they made at the end of last year that House GOP leaders are tied to Tea Party conservatives and not willing to compromise.  

Some members of the House Republican Conference, however, think it would be wise to pass a House version of the transportation reauthorization with Democratic support.

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), a member of the House Transportation Appropriations subcommittee, has tried to amend the House legislation to make it more appealing to Democrats.

LaTourette, a centrist who has good relations with labor unions, warned his GOP colleagues that not a single Democrat would vote for the bill on the floor.

But as he was during the payroll tax debate, Boehner is reluctant to support legislation that spurs mass defections in the GOP conference and needs the support of many Democrats to pass.

Lawmakers assume the Senate transportation bill will pass with strong bipartisan support because of the co-sponsorship of Boxer and Inhofe, but it could derail because of disagreements over amendments.

Progress on the bill stalled this week because of a battle over an amendment to exempt employers from healthcare regulations on grounds of conscience.

Reid said Thursday that dozens of other non-germane amendments could derail the legislation altogether.

“Now, you would think after getting rid of this controversial amendment we could move on to the bill,” Reid said of the failed GOP amendment that would have exempted some employers from having to cover the costs of birth control. “But they have filed over 100 amendments and they’re still coming in, folks. Ninety percent of these amendments have nothing to do with the highway bill.”

Senate Republicans are pushing for amendments to authorize the construction of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline and to delay and soften Environmental Protection Agency boiler pollution regulations.