Boehner, Reid try to break gridlock in talks over highway spending

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are getting involved in the stalled conference talks over a highway spending bill. 

Boehner said Reid will join him for a face-to-face meeting Tuesday with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the lawmakers who have been leading the 47-member conference committee that has thus far failed to strike a deal on the legislation.

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Mica told reporters he hoped the bicameral leadership meeting would yield “some resolution.”

Asked if he was optimistic a deal would be reached, he replied: “I have moments of optimism. I have moments of depression.”

Mica, the chief House GOP negotiator, said Republicans needed “a lot of concessions on some of the major issues” from Democrats.

Earlier Tuesday Boehner told reporters he would press Senate Democratic leaders to include reforms to transportation spending in any final agreement. 

“Our members have been hard at work trying to come to an agreement on a transportation bill,” Boehner said after a closed-door Republican conference meeting. “We believe it’s essential that we have real reforms in place so that we’re fixing highways and rebuilding highways instead of planting flowers and diverting money for purposes that [the fund] was never intended to do. So these reforms are in our bill and are very important, and for some reason they’ve met resistance from the senators — the Democratic senators.” 

The Speaker added: "I’m going to stress to Sen. Reid and Sen. Boxer that we want a bill, but we also are going to insist on reforms to the process by which we spend the highway tax dollars that the American voters give us to rebuild America’s highways.”

The meeting is a last-ditch effort to reach a deal on legislation that would fund highway spending for at least 18 months. Lawmakers have approved a series of nine short-term extensions to a transportation appropriation measure that expired in 2009, and are trying to avoid passing another temporary measure. 

GOP lawmakers are pushing to include a series of reforms both in transportation spending and environmental deregulation in the long-term highway bill, and they have complained that Democrats have barely budged on their key sticking points.

“Everybody is staring at each other right now waiting for someone to blink,” said freshman Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the House-Senate conference committee.

He said there was “still time to get a conference report” before the June 30 deadline but that another extension of current funding was also under discussion.

The Boehner-Reid meeting comes after increasingly sharp rhetoric from Boxer and Mica that seemed to indicate the conference committee talks were breaking down.

Boxer, the chairwoman of the transportation conference committee, said the House lacked "urgency" and "leadership" in the highway talks. Mica countered that the Senate was "unwilling to compromise at all” on House preferences such as mandating the approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Boehner has suggested Congress could pass a six-month extension if the conference committee fails to reach an agreement on a longer-term bill. Transportation advocates and Democrats in the Senate have argued that doing so without appropriating new money to roads and transit would hasten a bankruptcy in the highway trust fund that has been projected by the Congressional Budget Office to occur in 2013.

The House has already approved an extension of current funding that would carry transportation funding, and the authorization to collect the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax that goes into the highway trust fund, through Sept. 30. But that measure would have to also be approved by the Senate to become law.

— The story was originally posted at 11:01 a.m. and has been updated.