House Republicans need two things to get a full-fledged surface-transportation bill through the chamber and on to a conference committee with the Senate—a simple majority and $44 billion to pay for the bill’s first two years. They have until June 30, when a newly approved extension of federal highway authority expires.
Basking in his victory on Thursday after the House easily passed a 90-day extension on a 266-158 vote, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said he is working with Speaker John Boehner to bring his long-term highway bill to the floor after a two-week recess. A shutdown of the highway program was averted when the Senate passed the extension later on Thursday.
Details are sketchy about the House’s next moves. Mica is pushing for a five-year, $260 billion measure, which Democrats warn would cut infrastructure funding in several states, but the date of a floor vote is uncertain. Leasing and production fees from new domestic oil-drilling rights are to pay for the bill—a funding mechanism favored by almost two-thirds of Americans, according to the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.
Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are negotiating a process to set up a House-Senate conference committee that will seek agreement on a long-term bill. The Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion bill earlier this month. The House-Senate talks will go on during the recess at the same time that the House is shoring up its own bill. House Republicans say that the 90-day extension has bought them time to complete their own measure, but Democrats are skeptical. If the House Republicans had the votes to pass a highway bill, they wonder, why haven’t they done it already?
Although Republicans see Mica’s five-year plan as their best option to counter the Senate bill, their level of commitment to it varies. Mica is still working to get members to sign on. At the same time, his bill is short by about $44 billion in its first two years, according to congressional aides and industry analysts close to the talks. The two-year funding gap exists because money from the expanded drilling would not be available until at least 2016, when the government could start collecting fees.
The $44 billion could be raised by changing the federal employees’ pension plan for future workers, but that proposal is outside of Mica’s jurisdiction and control, and Democrats would fight the change. House Republicans may be on their own in terms of garnering floor votes—and that’s no simple task given that some conservatives are unhappy that Mica’s bill does not cut the federal program by one-third as originally proposed.
“We are working on putting together the final touches on that bill, and it will be ready when we get back,” Boehner said.
The “final touches” mean different things to different people. For Boehner, it means cementing the link between domestic oil drilling and infrastructure spending. The speaker has been hammering on the administration about slowing or stopping domestic energy production as gas prices continue to climb. The highway bill offers Boehner his best chance to push the administration to accept at least some of the Republicans’ drilling proposals. He is a lot less concerned about the ins and outs of the highway bill.
For Mica, it is his last chance to put his name on a highway bill because he is in his last term as chairman of the Transportation Committee. Unlike Boehner, Mica is well-versed in the nuances of the federal highway program, and he has been waiting a long time to tinker with it. He has crafted legislation that would fix many of his peeves about the program, such as a Balkanized system of doling out funds and an excessively bureaucratic system of approving loans and grants. Ironically, the parts of Mica’s bill that he has the most control over are the ones that almost everyone likes—combining funding streams and speeding up project approvals. The parts of the bill that Mica has no control over, the pay-fors, are causing the most trouble.
Senate Democrats feel that they have compromised enough in completing their own bill with Republicans. But before they have to worry about that, House Republicans need to get past their own barriers. It should make for a fun spring.
Dan Friedman contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the March 30, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.