By Russell Berman, Alexander Bolton and Keith Laing - 06/06/12 01:00 AM EDT
Congressional negotiations over a highway bill took an acrimonious turn on Tuesday as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accused House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) of thwarting the legislation in a bid to harm the economy.
Reid leveled the volatile charge hours after the top Senate negotiator on the bill, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), announced she had made a bipartisan offer to House Republicans to break an impasse in a House-Senate conference committee.
The Senate leader chalked up the Republican resistance to tensions between Cantor and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and a feeling among some Republicans that not moving a highway bill would be better for their party politically because of the damage it would do to the White House.
“You have heard, as I heard, that there’s a battle going on between Cantor and Boehner as to whether or not there should be a bill,” Reid told reporters during his weekly press conference. “Cantor, of course — I’m told by others that he wants to not do a bill and make the economy worse because he feels that’s better for them.
“I hope that that’s not true,” Reid said.
His charge caught aides and reporters off guard. While tensions between Boehner and Cantor over deficit talks have been well-known, Cantor has not played a particularly active role in the highway bill, which had been a Boehner priority.
Reid’s comments drew blistering denials from aides to both Boehner and Cantor.
“That’s bulls--t,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “House Republicans are united in our desire to get a sensible, reform-minded transportation bill
done, including job-creating energy initiatives like Keystone.”
The House-approved bill includes language mandating that the Obama administration approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would run from the Canadian province of Alberta to the Gulf Coast.
Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon said: “Leader Reid’s claims are ridiculous and patently false. Rather than making up stories that have no basis in reality, Leader Reid should follow the House’s example and focus on pro-growth measures that will get the economy going and get people back to work.”
A spokesman for Reid did not respond to a request to elaborate on his accusation of a feud between Boehner and Cantor over the highway bill.
Fallon noted that her boss on Friday expressed support for the negotiations.
“I’m hopeful that the conference committee can come to a solution prior to the expiration of the authorizing language in place right now, but, again, very mindful we don’t want to allow for any shutdown of any program at the end of this month,” Cantor said.
The Senate has passed a two-year, $109 billion reauthorization of transportation programs with bipartisan support, led by Boxer and conservative GOP Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.). Boehner had pushed Republicans in the House to pass a more expansive five-year reauthorization with a bevy of GOP reforms, but he could not bring enough conservatives and centrists onboard. Instead, GOP negotiators are fighting to include provisions reducing environmental regulations that they attached to short-term highway extensions. Chief among the Republican priorities is language mandating the approval of the Keystone oil sands pipeline.
With prospects for a conference committee agreement diminishing, Boxer said on Tuesday that she and Inhofe had delivered an offer to House Republicans on the transportation provisions of the bill. It did not include the Keystone pipeline.
“Right now, we delivered our transportation [proposal] to them,” she said. “The other [issues] we’ll deal with after we do that. This is a transportation bill.”
She disputed reports that the talks had broken down. “That’s not what happened at all today,” she said.
“Sen. Inhofe and I delivered a proposal to the House today that reflects a lot of their proposals,” Boxer continued. “It’s an offer that reflects their wishes ... because it’s been four weeks and we’ve listened to them. We got a very warm reception over there, and we’re excited because we think this is going to move the process forward.”
House Republicans, however, were noncommittal. “We are taking a look at that proposal and will discuss it with our conferees,” said Justin Harclerode, spokesman for the lead House GOP negotiator, Rep. John Mica (Fla.).
Earlier Tuesday, the second-ranking House Democrat, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), assailed Republicans over their negotiating position on the highway bill, saying their unwillingness to compromise was hurting the economy.
“It’s not our way or the highway, it’s our way or no highway. No jobs, no progress, no consensus, no agreement,” Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, told reporters at his weekly Capitol briefing on Tuesday.
Freshman Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the conference committee, said there were “a lot of issues that we’re far apart on” but that both sides were committed to getting an agreement. He said he gave the Senate credit for a passing a long-term bill but that the House needed to be included in negotiations. “It is an interesting conversation for the Senate to say, ‘We have a bipartisan agreement, so the House should take it.’ There is a difference between bipartisan and bicameral,” Lankford said.