By Russell Berman - 03/07/12 04:18 PM EST
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is making one last push to rally Republicans around his signature transportation bill, warning rank-and-file lawmakers against “punting on the opportunity to pass an infrastructure bill that bears our stamp.”
The Speaker made his pitch in a closed-door conference meeting Wednesday, where he and other party leaders implored conservatives to support a five-year, $260 billion highway bill that many have opposed.
Boehner bluntly warned lawmakers that if the House does not pass its own bill, it will be stuck with a two-year, $109 billion Senate bill, or “something that looks just like it,” according to a source in the room.
“But right now, it’s the plan.”
The Speaker has floated a variety of proposals in recent weeks, but ultimately he has returned to a bill that closely resembles the original, five-year plan passed by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on a largely party-line vote.
Lawmakers said GOP leaders plan to again count votes on the bill and then decide whether to bring it to the House floor after next week’s recess. The Senate appears close to a deal that would lead to passage of its bill in the coming days. Authorization for the current surface transportation programs expires on March 31, meaning Congress will almost certainly have to approve a stopgap extension to buy time for negotiations, unless the House decides to simply accept the Senate bill unchanged.
Boehner has made the transportation legislation a priority, hoping to use it to reform a traditional earmark haven by using an expansion of domestic energy production to fund infrastructure enhancements and supplement the dwindling Highway Trust Fund.
In navigating the measure, however, the Speaker has confronted a familiar dilemma. Faced with conservative concerns over the price tag, he has been forced to choose whether to double down and win over the right, or to make changes that could gain Democratic support. In this case, Boehner has lost not only Democrats but a sizable chunk of more centrist Republicans from urban and suburban districts.
Hoping to win their support, GOP leaders removed planned cuts to mass transit programs.
But it was not enough to satisfy one key Boehner ally, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), who said after the conference meeting he would oppose the bill.
“I can’t support the original bill, and they know that,” LaTourette said. “But I don’t think they’re looking at me. I think they’re looking at some of the fiscal conservatives who have reasons that may be a little bit different than mine.”
While Boehner’s immediate problem is to rally support for the highway bill, he used the meeting to make a broader plea for unity as the election season draws closer.
“The American people entrusted us with the majority in the House. What we do with it us up to us,” he said. “We can use it to take steps together, one at a time, toward the vision we share. Or we can do nothing. We can squander the time we’ve been given … allowing our internal disagreements to paralyze us.
“The good news is we have a winning message. The bad news is that in order for that message to mean anything, we have to back it up with action.”
Lawmakers said members gave impassioned speeches in the conference meeting both for and against the bill.
Freshman Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) said she supported the leadership measure.
“What we don’t want to have is no voice,” she said. “I don’t want to just take the Senate bill and end up passing it. I want us to have a House bill that we can compare to the Senate bill, go to conference and work out our differences.”
The Transportation chairman who shepherded the bill through committee, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), said he felt good after the meeting.
“I think people can be accommodated,” he said. “I came in concerned, but I leave very reassured that there’s strong support for what we started out to do.”
Boehner spoke candidly about the leadership’s struggle to find a highway bill that could win 218 Republican votes.
“In recent weeks we’ve run every possible combination up the flagpole: A five-year bill. An 18-month bill. We haven’t been able to get to 218 on any of them,” he said in the meeting. “And so, consequently, the plan as it stands right now is to let the Senate pass a bill, and take up something that looks just like it.”