House GOP, Dems voice strong opposition to Senate highway bill

House GOP, Dems voice strong opposition to Senate highway bill
© Greg Nash

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Wednesday signaled the Senate’s six-year highway funding bill is a non-starter. 

McCarthy listed several House GOP gripes with the legislation, even as House Democrats complained about offsets the Senate bill would use to pay for $50 billion in highway funding for the next three years.

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Rank-and-file Republicans also offered grumbles, and voiced support for the five-month highway bill already approved by the House.

McCarthy, the No. 2 Republican in the House, didn’t completely rule out the Senate bill, saying a conference negotiation was possible.

“There’s ways to deal with it. You can go to conference. We can do ours,” he told reporters following a private House GOP conference meeting. “But I don’t see the Senate [bill] flying in the House.”

The Senate bill would first have to pass the upper chamber, and that’s far from certain.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellPortman gets in heated clash with McConnell on ObamaCare repeal: report Medicaid becomes big threat to GOP’s healthcare revival Unresolved issues, very little time for Senate GOP MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerTime is now to address infrastructure needs Tom Steyer testing waters for Calif. gubernatorial bid Another day, another dollar for retirement advice rip-offs MORE (D-Calif.), unveiled the six-year compromise package Tuesday, but the measure failed to garner enough support to clear a procedural hurdle.

McConnell vowed to continue to work on the package this week, going so far as to say the Senate could work through the weekend on the matter if necessary.

The effort suggests McConnell intends to jam the House by passing the six-year measure through the upper chamber and then daring the House not to pass it.

Authority for federal highway funding lapses at the end of the month, and the House is scheduled to begin its August recess at the end of next week. It the Senate can send a measure to the House early next week, the lower chamber could face pressure to approve it.

McCarthy detailed several complaints about the Senate bill, including that it came together with just days to spare before funding expires and that only its first three years are paid for.

“The Senate bill coming together in the last minute ... that it’s not paid for, I think brings real doubt to a lot of people,” he said.

House conservatives said Wednesday they didn’t feel pressure to accept a Senate bill because the House has already passed its own legislation.

“We just don’t think their plan is going to go anyplace,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “The Speaker said he had no idea, no clue what they’re up to, so we’re just going to hold to our plan.”

Asked if there were concerns among House members that the Senate could pass a long-term bill just days before the July 31 deadline and place pressure on the House, Fleming argued it would be the Senate that would blink first and pass something short-term.

“We think that what’s going to happen is, they’re going to go up against the deadline and just pass [the House bill],” he said.

Democratic leaders are already lining up against the McConnell-Boxer package, arguing that they can't support any of the major offset provisions.

“In my 22-plus years here in Congress, I've never seen a situation where there's been so much political angst about doing what we need to do to get people to pay for their use of our roads and highways and mass transit system,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said after a closed-door meeting of his caucus in the Capitol.

Becerra singled out an offset provision that would take money from the Social Security trust fund, arguing that any tweaks to the retirement benefit program should go toward bolstering it.

“I'll be darned if I'm going to let someone take money that's for Social Security to use it [on highways] because they're not willing to do the right thing to impose a user fee so we can fix our roads,” he said.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, initially suggested he would support the Social Security offset.

But moments later, he walked it back, saying he supports the policy but not as a part of the highway bill.

“No American thinks that a convicted felon living on the lam should live off of Social Security,” he clarified. “But … in terms of using that as a pay-for for the highway trust fund, we should not be using Social Security to do that.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) noted the differences between the chamber’s two approaches, but took a more measured approach.

“I think the House passed a responsible approach last week ... and continue to work to get a long-term, fully-funded highway bill in place,” he told reporters. “Obviously, the Senate feels otherwise. They’ve got a process underway and we’ll see what happens.”

An added gripe among House conservatives is that the Senate bill could include language reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, which saw its charter expire at the beginning of the month.

Conservatives have worked for years to kill the bank, and gave little indication Wednesday they could back a highway bill that brought it back to life.

“It’s going to be a deal-breaker for a lot of people,” said Fleming.