Transportation secretary sees no hope for pre-election highway bill

The House is scheduled to vote as early as Wednesday on a bill that would tie the next extension on federal highway funding to approval of the controversial Keystone pipeline, a cross-country oil pipeline that was rejected earlier this year by President Obama. 

Obama and other Democrats have said they want to avert an interruption in transportation funding, but they have vehemently opposed previous efforts to force approval of the oil pipeline despite criticism from Republicans about rising gas prices.

LaHood was critical of the transportation measure that is scheduled to appear before the House on Wednesday.

LaHood called the bill, H.R. 4348, a "big Christmas tree," but he also the measure would "probably pass.

"They've loaded it up with everything they think will assuage their members," LaHood said of Republican leaders in the House, who have resisted holding a vote on a two-year, $109 billion transportation measure that has been passed by the Senate.

"Look what they've loaded it up with," LaHood continued. "Keystone, coal ash — none of it has anything to do with transportation."

The latter language LaHood was speaking of deals with the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of the waste produced by coal power plants. LaHood said House leaders should not allow lawmakers from West Virginia and other coal-mining states to add a measure to the highway bill extension that would prevent EPA from setting tough new federal requirements, and instead leave regulation largely in state hands.

LaHood, who was a Republican member of the House before he was appointed by Obama in 2009, said when he was in Congress, lawmakers agreed regularly on five- or six-year transportation bills.

But he admitted it's harder to find consensus on highway bills that lengthy now.

"The reason [the Senate] did a two-year bill is because they could find $109 billion," he said. "They couldn't $500 billion or $600 billion. That's what you need to do a five- or six-year bill."

Despite his sharp criticism throughout the transportation debate of his former GOP colleagues in Congress, which has persisted for much of the year, LaHood said Wednesday that he was still a Republican.

"I just voted in a Republican primary in Illinois," he said.

He added that being a member of the opposite party of the president was helpful to a Transportation secretary.

"The reason I'm in this job is because I'm a Republican," he said. "If I decided to become a Democrat, they'd find another Republican to put in here. Why would I do that?"

LaHood has said previously that he will step down after the November election, even if the president wins reelection.

Asked about his future plans again Wednesday, LaHood demurred.

"I hope [Obama] wins reelection," he said. "I think he's been a good president. I'm going to vote for him and we'll see what happens after that."

The event LaHood delivered his remarks at Wednesday was sponsored by Politico.