Highways, Bridges and Roads

Boehner ally, critic Rep. LaTourette holds keys to House transportation bill

When House Speaker John Boehner (R) saw his close Ohio ally, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R), complaining publicly about his signature highway bill earlier this month, the Speaker gave LaTourette a blunt directive.

“Quit being an asshole and go talk to John Mica,” Boehner told him, referring to the committee chairman and Florida Republican who was in charge of the $260 billion transportation bill.

LaTourette did as he was told, and a week and a half later the bill is undergoing a wholesale rewrite that has put one of Boehner’s top 2012 priorities on hold.

{mosads}The episode, as recalled by LaTourette in an interview, highlights the tight relationship between the Speaker and his longtime home-state colleague, which was put to the test as the transportation bill went awry.

Boehner envisioned a reauthorization of the surface transportation programs that would contain no earmarks — long a fixture of such measures — and for the first time would use revenues from an expansion of domestic energy production to finance infrastructure projects.

LaTourette, 57, served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for 14 years before securing a spot on the Appropriations Committee in 2009, and he quickly signed on to the idea of linking energy and infrastructure. He participated in an early planning meeting with Boehner’s staff and fellow Ohio GOP Reps. Patrick Tiberi and Steve Stivers, who first came up with the oil-for-infrastructure plan.

When he saw the version that emerged from an 18-hour hearing in Mica’s Transportation Committee, however, LaTourette publicly denounced the bill. A centrist who has worked closely with Democrats, he raised concerns about several provisions and predicted that not a single Democrat would vote for the bill on the House floor.

“I’ve never seen a highway bill like that,” LaTourette said.

Some of the blame has fallen on Mica, who shepherded the bill through committee but failed to win bipartisan support.

LaTourette, who is backing Mitt Romney for president, is a rare Republican with strong ties to labor unions. As a deal-maker in a Republican Conference now dominated by more conservative firebrands, he has stood firmly in Boehner’s corner as the Speaker negotiated tough fights over the last year on federal spending and the debt ceiling. He has been open about ripping some members of the freshman class who have opposed Boehner’s proposals at nearly every turn.

But on the transportation bill, it was the chatty LaTourette who made life difficult for Boehner by taking his gripes public.

His criticism of the transportation measure did not go unnoticed in the Speaker’s office, which declined to comment for this article.

As the bill neared a floor vote, LaTourette sounded warnings about cuts to mass transit and a provision that would remove future funding from the Highway Trust Fund.

With Democrats opposed to the bill for a range of reasons, he said, “I couldn’t figure out how it was going to get 218 votes.”

Republican leaders were already likely to lose votes from conservatives who have opposed most spending bills in the 112th Congress and who complained that the price tag of $260 billion over five years was too high.

That left little wiggle room for Republicans from urban and suburban districts like LaTourette, for whom the mass-transit cuts were unacceptable.

“There was not one suburban Republican, particularly the freshmen, who really could have withstood taking that vote, especially when it wasn’t going to become law anyway,” LaTourette said in an interview this week.

He said his relationship with Boehner allowed the Speaker to put him to work to try to salvage the bill.

“It certainly didn’t strain it, and the great thing about my friendship with the Speaker is he can say to me, ‘Steve, quit being an asshole’ and ask me to do something, and most of the time I’ll go do it,” LaTourette said.

Yet LaTourette’s involvement yielded only mixed results. Boehner was forced to retreat from his plan to pass a long-term transportation bill. But the changes, including a restoration of the mass transit funding, could make it easier for the Speaker to retain his plan to link energy production with infrastructure.

“When it goes to the Senate it’s going to continue to have the energy piece attached to it,” LaTourette said. “So I think if you asked him at the beginning of this what he wanted to accomplish, he will in fact accomplish that if this goes according to plan.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who led an effort to amend the original highway bill by restoring the mass transit money to the Highway Trust Fund, credited LaTourette with playing “a large role” in gathering GOP opposition to the provision.

“Having his name on the amendment, along with some other Republicans, was very important. But he most of all,” Nadler said. “The Republicans we had on the bill were too many New Yorkers. Not that there’s anything wrong with New Yorkers, but we wanted it to be broader.”

Democrats praised the shift by Boehner but are not guaranteeing their support for a new bill.

LaTourette said he likes what he has seen, although he’s not ready to officially endorse the revamped legislation, which has yet to be finalized.

“I’m pretty optimistic that this is a bill that not only I can support but will gain pretty broad-based support,” he said.

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