House sidesteps Senate $109B highway bill for short-term bill

The House next week will consider a short-term extension of transportation funds after Republican leaders shunned a two-year highway bill approved in a bipartisan Senate vote. 

The decision will prolong a fight over transportation spending that has dominated much of the congressional agenda and sets up a standoff between the chambers similar to the one that led to the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last year. 

Highway funding will run out on March 31 without a short-term extension.

Despite the deadline, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would refuse to move a short-term bill and on Tuesday echoed his earlier calls for the House to move the Senate bill, which won 74 votes in the upper chamber. 

He blamed House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) inability to move his own transportation bill on the Tea Party. 

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“Millions of people depend on the [Senate] highway bill to pass in the House, but House leadership needs a permission slip for everything from the Tea Party,” Reid said.

Passing a long-term transportation bill was one of Boehner’s top priorities, but his proposal for a five-year, $260 billion has been hopelessly stuck. 

Conservative Republicans have balked at the bill’s cost, while others in Boehner’s conference have rejected cuts to public transportation. 

Many Democrats oppose the centerpiece of Boehner’s proposal, which is to use revenue from the approval of new oil and gas drilling on federal lands to pay for highway projects. 

Accepting the Senate bill would have been a significant defeat for Boehner, and it was not a surprise when Rep. John Mica, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters a short-term extension would instead be taken up in the House. 

“A decision will be made on the length of an extension hopefully in the next 24 hours and it will be up next week, so that we can continue working to finalize the bill,” Mica (R-Fla.) said after a speech at a Washington rally to encourage Congress to provide more funding for transportation. 

If the short-term bill does move forward, it would be the ninth short-term extension of transportation legislation since 2009, when the last highway bill expired. 

Leaders in both chambers of Congress have long said they did not want to pass another short-term extension after they extended a string of continuing resolutions for the FAA that topped 20, but Mica framed Tuesday’s decision as giving GOP leaders more time to craft their own highway bill. 

After a meeting with Republican lawmakers on Tuesday, Boehner said he would make decisions after “talking with our members,” not Democrats.

And Mica strongly suggested the House would not ever move to take up the Senate bill, despite the fact that it won the votes of 74 senators. 

“I would say there won't be any vote on that,” Mica said Tuesday when asked by reporters if there was any chance the House might consider the Senate bill. 

Mica downplayed Reid’s threat, noting that last year it was necessary to move short-term funding legislation for the FAA. 

“The Senate had passed a bill first. We had to go forward with an extension, maybe two, to get it done,” he said.  

But Mica’s account of the FAA fight obscures the two weeks the agency was shut down when the House passed a short-term extension of the bill and the Senate refused to take it up, arguing instead that the chambers should conference on their separate long-term funding bills.

The highway bill has become similarly controversial. 

Democrats oppose Boehner’s use of revenue from the approval of new drilling to make up for dwindling revenue from the federal gas tax that normally funds projects. 

Democrats also sharply criticized a proposal to cut dedicated funding to public transportation that has traditionally been derived from redirecting 2.86 cents of the gas tax to a special mass transit account. 

In his own conference, Boehner faces opposition from fiscally conservative Republicans who have criticized the bill for spending roughly $35 billion per year from the gas tax. 

The Senate bill did not include either the drilling provisions or the public transportation cuts. 

Democrats continued Tuesday to press Republicans to take up their bill. 

“This is not the time to quibble,” Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a speech Tuesday to transportation advocates. 

“This is not the time to stall,” Boxer said. “This is not the time to reinvent the wheel. This is the time to act across party lines together.”

This story was originally posted at 1:15 and has been updated.