Boehner warns House GOP he will take a detour on highway bill

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) warned House Republicans Tuesday that he will take up the Senate’s bipartisan $109 billion highway bill if they keep refusing to pass his version.

Adopting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) bill would be another embarrassing defeat for Boehner, who has talked for months about his vision for a House bill.

The Speaker wants a multiyear bill funded by oil and gas drilling revenues. But conservatives hate both the $260 billion price tag and a Congressional Budget Office estimate that drilling revenues will net Washington less than the Speaker hopes.

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Boehner and his lieutenants have also struggled to marshal support for an 18-month extension. Authorization for surface transportation programs, which have been running on short-term extensions since 2009, expires March 31.

Asked on Tuesday whether the House might simply take up the Senate bill, Boehner said, “That is an option.”

Boehner said GOP leaders were “continuing to talk to our members, trying to find common ground, in order to move our energy and infrastructure bill.”

House Republicans will hold a conference meeting Wednesday to discuss a path forward. One GOP aide said it could be the last chance for leaders to rally support for a House bill instead of taking up what the Senate passes. 

Boehner faces a familiar choice: tack to the right and win support from recalcitrant conservatives to pass a bill with 218 Republican votes, or fashion legislation closer to the Senate version in a bid to achieve bipartisan support in the House.

To win Democratic votes, the Speaker would have to drop reforms to the federal employee pension program that had initially been used to pay for the highway bill.

“The problem is the pay-fors,” a senior GOP aide said. “That really is the big issue.”

Without the pension reforms backed by conservatives, GOP leaders would need to find more than $10 billion in cuts that could win Democratic support. 

Democrats hope for a replay of December’s Senate-House showdown over the payroll tax holiday, when Boehner was forced to accept a two-month stopgap measure that passed the upper chamber with 89 votes. 

They say it will be difficult for Boehner to resist a Senate transportation bill with strong bipartisan support and predict House Republicans will appear obstructionist if they do. 

While Boehner has repeatedly moved to mollify conservatives in the past year, he may be headed in the other direction this time around. Aides said Republicans have reached out to the chief Democratic vote-counter, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), to gauge what would be needed to gain Democratic votes. Hoyer has publicly urged GOP leaders to reach across the aisle rather than try to force through a bill with only Republican votes.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told The Hill last week that there would be pressure on House Republicans to accept a Senate transportation bill with bipartisan support.

Senate Republicans defeated a motion Tuesday to move the transportation bill to a final Senate vote, but lawmakers characterized it as a “bump in the road” and said there would be a bipartisan agreement in the next few days. 

“There’s a consensus in the Senate that it’s important for our country to pass the highway bill,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “This is a bump in the road for a bipartisan bill. In the strange way the Senate works, it may clear the way for a result.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Tuesday he expects to reach an agreement on amendments that will pave the way for a vote on final Senate passage of the legislation. 

“I think we’re going to get an agreement on amendments. There’s as much demand on Sen. Reid’s side for amendments as there is on ours, both germane and non-germane,” he said. 

McConnell on Tuesday called for votes on 34 amendments and pledged to continue blocking the legislation unless Democrats gave ground. 

Reid said he would review McConnell’s demand to consider dozens of amendments, including measures to authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and soften pending regulations on boiler pollution. 

Reid could not resist poking Boehner over his transportation woes during a Tuesday press conference. 

He crowed at the prospect that divisions among House Republicans would force Boehner to accept the Senate bill.  

He said he hoped Boehner’s reported decision to take responsibility for the highway bill away from House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and give it to Rep. Bill Shuster (Pa.), the 10th-ranking Republican member of the panel, would spur progress. 

“His father I knew very well. We were both senior members of our Transportation committees and we worked together on several highway bills. His name was Bud Shuster. If his son is anything like the dad, it will help get this bill done,” Reid told reporters. 

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Democratic leadership, accused McConnell of dragging out the Senate debate to give Boehner more time to get his conference in line. 

“Senate Republicans have been using amendments to delay this bipartisan highway bill until Speaker Boehner could figure out a path for dealing with it in the House. Now that the Speaker has publicly signaled he is willing to buck his conservative bloc and give the Senate bill a vote, momentum is on our side.”

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, called Schumer’s statement a “cross between fiction and falsehood.” 

Steel also disputed a media report that Boehner had pulled Mica off the transportation bill. 

He said the Speaker “continues to have every confidence in Chairman Mica, and totally supports his continuing efforts to pass a transportation bill with key reforms, including a link to expanded American energy supply — and no earmarks.”

Lawmakers and aides say it is increasingly likely that Congress will need to approve a short-term extension of the surface transportation programs before the March 31 expiration date.

Hoyer predicted Tuesday that it would be “more likely” that lawmakers would need to pass a stopgap transportation measure.