Obama: Highway bill used to be the 'easiest bill to pass in Washington'

The House has steadfastly resisted pressure from Obama and other Democrats to take up the Senate's version of the highway bill, passing a pair of short-term extensions of current funding through Sept. 30 to carry into the conference with the Democratically-controlled upper chamber.
Obama said Monday that Congress not passing a multi-year transportation bill this year "makes no sense.

"Congress needs to do the right thing," he said. "Pass this bill right away. It shouldn’t be that hard. ... Not everything should be subject to thinking about the next election instead of thinking about the next generation."

Obama's point about the ability of prior Congresses to pass transportation bills more easily than the current crop of lawmakers has been echoed by veterans of prior highway bills on both sides of the aisle.

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

But LaHood said it is harder now for Congress to reach a consensus on highway bills that lengthy.

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

Similarly, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) have both attributed their trouble convincing Republicans to support their proposal for a five-year, $260 billion transportation bill to their inability to offer earmarks to legislators who are on the fence.

"It’s an awful lot harder to win votes than it used to be," Boehner said of the highway bill negotiations during a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.

"Why? Part of it is because this majority listened to the people and banned earmarks," Boehner continued in the CPAC speech. "We sacrificed a tool of power that’s been around for decades."  

The committee of lawmakers appointed to finalize the highway bill is scheduled to hold its first meeting next Tuesday.