Senate Democrats stop short of saying they'd reject short-term highway bill

Senate Democrats stopped short Wednesday of saying they would not accept a short-term extension of the highway bill if it is approved next week by the House.

"We're urging them not to put us in that position, or America," Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats slam Trump for considering Putin’s ’absurd’ request to question Americans Judge Kavanaugh confounds the left This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation MORE (D-N.Y.) said in response to a question from The Hill about whether the Senate would pick up a short-term bill approved by the House.

Schumer and other Democrats held a press conference Wednesday to urge the House to approve a two-year highway bill passed last week in a bipartisan Senate vote. They warned that if no legislation is approved by March 31, the federal gas tax that funds highway projects would expire and thousands of construction workers would be out of work.

House Republicans are shunning the Senate’s bill in favor of working on their own, longer-term highway legislation. But they are expected to move a three-month extension of current funding next week to prevent the gas tax from expiring.

Democrats said the hit the economy would take from expiration of the gas tax would dwarf the economic effect of a partial Federal Aviation Administration shutdown last year.

"It's the FAA shutdown on steroids," Senate Environment and Public Committee Chairwoman Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerKamala Harris on 2020 presidential bid: ‘I’m not ruling it out’ The ‘bang for the buck’ theory fueling Trump’s infrastructure plan Kamala Harris endorses Gavin Newsom for California governor MORE (D-Calif.) said. "The FAA bill created and protected about 200,000 jobs. We're talking about 3 million jobs."

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidSenate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Don’t worry (too much) about Kavanaugh changing the Supreme Court Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (D-Nev.) on Tuesday signaled opposition to picking up the House short-term bill, which House Republicans have said would be a “clean” bill.

But he may not have a choice if the House does not approve the Senate bill.

A short-term bill would be the ninth extension of the transportation bill that expired in 2009.

Schumer warned that the short-term extensions are themselves hurting the highway trust fund that is built around the gas tax.

"It's death by 1,000 paper cuts," said Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate. "If you keep extending the bill ... it's the death knell of the bill, because the trust fund will be gone.

"Every time you extend it, the trust fund gets lower and lower, and it'll be gone by ... the end of the year,” he said. 

The three-month extension announced by the House suggests Republicans are not close to coalescing around their own bill.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFive GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups Veterans are left out of medical marijuana protections MORE (R-Ohio) has identified the transportation bill as one of his top election-year priorities, but he has thus far been unable to craft a version of the measure that can win over his conservative House Republican caucus. 

BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFive GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups Veterans are left out of medical marijuana protections MORE's preferred version of the measure is a five-year, $260 billion bill as opposed to the Senate's two-year, $109 billion bill. But that measure came under fire from Republicans because it spent more money than is brought in each year by the federal gas tax, which traditionally funds transportation programs. 

Democrats in the House and Senate also balked at Boehner's proposal to use revenue from expanded domestic oil-and-gas drilling to pay for new transportation projects.

Boehner then suggested an 18-month version of the bill that dropped controversial public transportation funding cuts, but he was unable to win support in the House for that measure either.

Schumer said Wednesday that Boehner would not be able to find a way to thread the needle even with more time from a short-term extension. 

"He had his chance to put together a partisan bill," Schumer said Wednesday. "He failed and failed again. The game is over."