New offer from Senate Dems in highway talks

Senate Democrats made a new offer for a long-term highway bill to House Republicans on Tuesday as leaders of both parties intervened in the stalled talks in a last-ditch effort to salvage them.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged their chambers' lead negotiators to double down on efforts to reach a deal before June 30, when the authorization for federal highway programs is set to expire.

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It was leadership’s first formal meeting with the key players in the process, which has consumed both chambers for months.

"We're going to talk hour by hour and see if we can get this done," Rep. John Mica (Fla.), the chief House GOP negotiator, told reporters as he emerged from Boehner's office.

Both sides have something to lose if they cannot win a long-term deal — and the impending election is making it difficult to agree. The bill is likely the Democrats' best hope for passing jobs legislation before the election.

Mica said that his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), had presented new Senate proposals but that he had yet to fully review them and could not say whether they represented concessions on the key sticking points. Mica had planned to brief Republican members of the 47-member House-Senate conference committee later Tuesday. Before the leadership meeting, Mica said he needed to see “a lot of concessions on some of the major issues” from Democrats.

Boxer issued a short statement after the meeting, saying only that Boehner and Reid had instructed the conference leaders “to finish our work this week on the transportation bill.” She said she asked Mica “to meet continually over the next several days to achieve this deadline.”

While the Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill with bipartisan support, the Republican-led House could only garner support for short-term highway extensions loaded up with reforms to spending programs and environmental regulations. The House GOP is also pushing to include language approving the Keystone oil sands pipeline in the final legislation.
 
“We believe it is crucial that we have real reforms in how we spend taxpayers’ highway dollars, and we continue to support bipartisan jobs initiatives like Keystone,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
 
Republicans say they must see movement from Democrats on the issues of program consolidation, transportation reforms and relaxed environmental rules.
 
Earlier Tuesday, Boehner told reporters, "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 was part of a final push 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.
 
“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 bill. Transportation advocates and Democrats in the Senate have argued that doing so without appropriating new money to road 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 cent-per-gallon gas tax that goes into the highway trust fund, through Sept. 30. But that measure would have to be approved by the Senate to become law.