WASHINGTON — The House Transportation Committee is expected to approve the $260 billion five-year highway and transit funding bill sponsored by its chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., despite sharp partisan bickering and an avalanche of amendments proposed by Democrats on Thursday, none of which are expected to move forward.
The Republican bill, dubbed the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, was unveiled by Mica on Tuesday to great fanfare. He and other House Republicans are hoping the committee will approve the bill as soon as Thursday night and that it will eventually become the first multi-year reauthorization of the federal government’s surface transportation programs since the previous law expired on Sept. 30, 2009.
But in a contentious committee meeting to vote on the bill, Democrats proposed almost 100 amendments, seeking to undo some of the Republicans’ cost-cutting provisions. The bill would maintain current highway and transit funding levels over the five years.
Mica produced a list of transportation advocacy groups that supported the bill, including the American Automobile Association and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
But that wasn’t acceptable to Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., the committee’s ranking Democrat. Rahall proposed an amendment requiring the secretary of transportation to withhold fiscal 2014 funding for surface transportation programs unless action is taken to increase funding to levels “adequate to enhance the nation’s economic competitiveness.”
Mica said he understood and sympathized with Rahall’s attempt to incentivize future funding increases, but urged the committee not to back the amendment. Committee Republicans promptly voted it down.
A bipartisan amendment, offered by Reps. Thomas Petri, R-Wisc., Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., and Timothy Johnson, R-Ill., also was defeated in a close 27-to-29 vote. It proposed to extend current law requirements that states set aside a certain amount of federal funding for special programs like the Safe Route to School Program, which provides funding for pedestrian and bicycle safety features.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said the funding can’t be diverted at such a critical time. The hearing came just two days after the latest Congressional Budget Office report showed that the Highway Trust Fund — the gasoline and other user tax-fed fund that provides most of the nation’s highway maintenance funding — could be fiscally insolvent within two years. All funding needs to be “focused like a laser” on rebuilding the highway system, Shuster said.
Democrats also objected to what they said was far too little time for each member of the committee to properly consider the more than 800-page bill. Rahall said the final text of the measure was not made available to them until Tuesday, although Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., leaked a mostly-complete early draft of the bill last Thursday. Mica disagreed and said his efforts to share the bill ahead of time with Democrats was extensive and even “unprecedented.”
GOP members defeated a motion by Rahall to delay consideration of the bill until next week. “We are now proceeding with a markup on a bill that no one has read,” he said.
Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., went further. Brown said that while the Republican majority will pass Mica’s bill through the committee and the full House, a vote Mica hopes will occur sometime this month, it isn’t the responsibility of the Democrat-controlled Senate to pick up Mica’s “bad bill” and pass it.
“It doesn’t get worse than this bill,” Brown said. “I used to rail against the Senate. Now I thank God for the Senate.”
Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, who last week expressed doubts that Congress would produce a multi-year surface transportation bill this year, told Politico while the committee was meeting that House Republicans have created “the most partisan” and “the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service.”
The testy deliberations were a far cry from the path of a bipartisan, two-year surface reauthorization bill sponsored by both Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and the top Republican on the panel, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. That bill passed out of committee by unanimous vote, though the Senate Finance Committee has not yet had a chance to examine the financing portion of Boxer’s bill.
That bill outspends the available money in the highway trust fund by $12 billion. Finance chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he would find the money, but he doesn’t appear to havedone so. A Senate Finance Committee staffer, who asked not to be identified, said discussions over possible savings are still ongoing.
“There have certainly been constructive discussions and members are continuing to work on offset options to determine what can get the support needed to pass,” the staffer said.
Mica’s bill needs to come up with around $50 billion. It proposes to do so by channeling money from leases on expanded domestic oil drilling into the highway trust fund. Even if both the House and Senate bills get approval and go to conference committee, as many transportation lobbyists are hoping, there is concern about a possible stalemate since Boxer said paying for the bill with expanded oil-drilling revenues would be “the last thing” Democrats would want.
Despite that, Mica said he is eager for the House to pass the bill so that negotiations can begin on it and whatever final bill the Senate approves.
Mica also said he is encouraged by successful negotiations on a multi-year reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration, where conferees were able to resolve a hot-button labor union issue,
“Our goal is to take this to a conference,” Mica said. “I’d like to do the same thing, working with the other body.”
For their part, the Senator Republicans are also eager for a conference.
“I am pleased the House is taking this critical first step forward,” said the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s top Republican, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. “The House and Senate bills both include unprecedented reforms of the existing highway program and are funded at very similar annual levels. The differences could be resolved in a bipartisan fashion during House-Senate conference. The bottom line is that we need to pass a transportation bill as soon as possible so that we can get our economy moving again.”
The committee was expected to work late into the night, but Democrats conceded that Republicans could pass the bill.