GOP lines up to punt on highway bill

House Republicans moved to punt consideration of a long-term highway bill until at least this summer, announcing Wednesday that they would seek to approve a three-month extension of current funding next week.

The short-term bill would give House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) more time to rally his conference around a five-year, $260 billion measure that would use revenue from new domestic oil-and-gas drilling to pay for highway projects. 

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Conservatives have balked at Boehner’s bill, and he has been unable so far to unite his conference behind an alternative. 

Most observers saw the chances of Boehner’s bill becoming law as low, given opposition to the new drilling from the White House and some Senate Democrats, but moving the bill through the House would have served as an important political victory for the Speaker. In an election year when the economy and rising gas prices are on voters’ minds, Boehner has sought to seize the advantage by casting his conference as champions of domestic energy while criticizing President Obama’s opposition to new drilling.

This narrative has been complicated by opposition within Boehner’s own party to his five-year bill, and by the Senate’s passage, in a bipartisan vote, of a two-year, $109 billion highway bill. The best way for Boehner to get back on offense would be to win support in the House for his own highway bill.

The top Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said Wednesday the short-term bill would at least buy Boehner time to build support for the five-year bill. 

“That’s what we’re trying to get the votes for,” committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) told reporters off the House floor.

Democrats worked hard Wednesday to portray the decision to move a short-term extension instead of the Senate bill as a failure of Boehner’s leadership. 

“He had his chance to put together a partisan bill,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said of Boehner in a news conference Wednesday. “He failed and failed again.”

But Schumer and other Senate Democrats did not outright reject the idea of passing the short-term extension, which would prevent an interruption in the collection of the federal gas tax set to expire March 31.

The gas tax brings in about $36 billion per year to the federal government, and Democrats said the money it generates provides funding for millions of construction jobs.

The short-term measure House GOP leaders said they would move would authorize the collection of the gas tax through June 30. This would be the ninth extension of the last multiyear highway bill, which expired in 2009.

The move is the latest in what has become a rollercoaster ride for the House GOP’s measure. 

After party leaders failed to win backing from their conference for the initial bill, they floated shorter versions of 18 months and two years. When those also met resistance, Boehner tried again to rally support for the long-term bill before threatening to take up the Senate’s two-year measure.

Now it appears the Speaker has returned to square one, dispensing with plans to either pass or tweak the measure the Senate sent to the House.

“I’ve talked to leadership — they’ve committed, we’re committed,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, said in reference to the five-year bill. “We’re going to make some tweaks to it to make sure we pick up enough support.”

Shuster, a member of the GOP whip team, said he thought party leaders would have better results this time around.

“Last time we whipped this thing, there was a lot of confusion out there,” he said.

Shuster said the hope was that the 90-day extension would provide enough time for the House to pass its bill and go to a conference committee to reconcile differences with the Senate. The Senate measure, he said, “is a bill that’s got a lot of problems with it.”

House Republicans said the two-year Senate bill does not provide enough certainty for transportation contractors, and Boehner desperately wants to include the key element of the House measure that links infrastructure spending and domestic energy production.

Schumer and other Senate Democrats argued again Wednesday that after the two false starts, the House should simply pass the Senate bill. They also warned that the short-term extensions endanger the trust fund for highway projects, which is supported by the gas tax. 

“It’s death by 1,000 paper cuts,” Schumer said. “Every time you extend it, the trust fund gets lower and lower, and it’ll be gone by ... the end of the year.” 

Asked by The Hill if the Senate would reject a short-term House extension if the alternative was an interruption in the gas tax, Schumer said: “We’re urging them not to put us in that position, or America.”

 Russell Berman contributed to this report.