Boxer pledges to meet ‘for hours’ with Mica to jump-start highway bill

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the conference committee negotiating a House and Senate compromise on a highway spending bill, said Wednesday she and GOP counterpart Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) would meet "for hours" to try and break the deadlock.

"Starting today we are meeting for hours and we will let you know when we have an agreement,” Boxer told reporters.

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On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged committee leaders to "redouble" their efforts to find a compromise on the transportation bill.

Absent such an agreement, the current funding for federal transportation projects is scheduled to expire on June 30. In addition to providing funding for road and transit projects, the bill authorizes the federal government to collect the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax that is traditionally used to fund construction.

Asked if meeting on Tuesday with Boehner and Reid was helpful to the contentious negotiations she and Mica are leading, Boxer said, "Sure."


"The meeting yesterday was huge progress, both leaders saying they want a bill by the end of the week," she said. "It was huge progress and we have hours on the schedule with the principals, so, it’s all progress.”

The House has passed an extension that would carry transportation funding through Sept. 30. Preferring instead to reach a deal with the House similar to the two-year, $109 billion transportation bill the Senate approved earlier this year, the upper chamber has not passed the House's second extension, which would be the 10th continuance of the transportation bill that expired in 2009.

Because the Senate's transportation legislation was written to expire in September 2013, the measure would now only fund transportation projects for about 18 months as the bicameral negotiations drag on.

Speaker Boehner has suggested that lawmakers consider approving a six-month extension to carry transportation funding through the November elections. 

However, transportation advocates and Democrats in the Senate have argued that unless such a measure includes additional funding, it would hasten a bankruptcy in the highway trust the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has projected will occur in 2013 as gas tax revenues struggle to keep up with rising construction costs. 

Asked by reporters Wednesday for an update on his negotiations with Boxer, Rep. Mica would only say "We're working hard."

But at least one outspoken House Democrat told The Hill Wednesday that he was more optimistic about the highway bill talks after the leadership intervention.

"Apparently we're finally getting down to the point of serious negotiations," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who has accused House Republicans of "hating America" in earlier debates about the transportation bill.

"Until this week, it was all 'he said, she said' except for some minor titles on the bill," DeFazio continued. "I'm more cautiously optimistic than I had been in a long time."

— Ben Geman and Russell Berman contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 2:51 p.m.