Senate leaders praise Speaker’s decision

Senate Democratic leaders on Thursday praised House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) decision to take up the Senate transportation bill or a similar measure.

They said Boehner had limited options and warned that if he insisted on a partisan House transportation package it would have led to a political defeat similar to GOP capitulation on a payroll tax package in December.

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“That’s a significant step forward,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters.

“Passing a similar bill is pleasing to my ears, and they should forget about the job-destroying, destructive bill Chairman [John] Mica is trying to marshal through that body,” he added in reference to the Florida Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Senate Democratic leaders believe they have the upper hand in negotiations with the House because the Senate transportation bill has strong bipartisan support.

The Senate voted 85-11 to proceed to the transportation bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of the Senate’s most liberal members, and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the chamber’s most outspoken conservatives.

“The question is will the Speaker choose partisan gridlock over bipartisan cooperation,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democratic leader.

Boehner said Thursday that “as I told the members yesterday, the current plan is to see what the Senate can produce and to bring their bill up.”

Schumer said the Senate will pass the two-year package by Tuesday and predicted it would create close to 3 million jobs.

“In an election year like this one, the bipartisan Senate agreement is a rare accomplishment,” Schumer said. “After the Senate passes the bill on Tuesday, all eyes will turn to the House. The question will be, ‘What will Boehner do?’”

Schumer warned Boehner not to take a hard-line partisan stance in talks over the transportation bill.

“The Speaker should remember the lesson of the payroll tax cut debate and not repeat his mistake,” Schumer said. “Whenever he lets a small group on the hard right dictate what he should do, he loses and America loses and bipartisanship loses. We hope he’s learned that lesson.”

Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) have an agreement to begin voting on 30 amendments to the transportation bill Thursday afternoon.

Senators expect to vote on final passage next week. The House is on recess next week and will return March 19.