House GOP Readying New Strategy on Highway Bill

Billy House

House Republican leaders are mulling a significant retreat from their stalled $260 billion highway bill -- including shifting away from a five-year reauthorization to a version that would kick longer-term decisions to a new Congress, a senior House GOP aide said on Thursday.

That is exactly the kind of decision that cost Democrats control of the House in 2010, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., charged just last week.

During a Rules Committee meeting about the transportation package last Tuesday, Mica said that if Democrats had pursued a long-term reauthorization in 2010 instead of a temporary one, he would not control the gavel.

"If you had passed that bill, I probably wouldn’t be chairman; [former Rep. Jim] Oberstar [D-Minn.] would … because you also killed the chance for people going to work in this country," Mica said.

The aide with knowledge of the ongoing discussions would not say how long a reauthorization they are considering but said it would include “plenty of time for a new Congress and new president to enact a long-term reauthorization.”

The current extension expires on March 31.

Earlier this month, the White House threatened to veto the House bill as drafted, citing concerns that it didn’t spend enough on the nation’s transportation system and that it would weaken environmental and labor protections. The administration threw its support behind a Senate bill that would spend $109 billion in less than two years.

The Senate is set to resume consideration of its package when it returns next week.

In the short-term extension being written by the House, the proposal to remove transit spending from the highway trust fund would be postponed, the aide added. The new version may also seek to reduce surface-transportation spending below current levels. 

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, acknowledged that a “revamped approach” is being considered, and sought to blame Democrats.

“Given Senate Democrats' unwillingness to pursue a longer-term infrastructure and energy plan, House Republican leaders are considering a revamped approach that would retain the speaker's vision of linking infrastructure to expanded American energy production, and allow Republicans to stay on offense on energy and jobs,” Steel said.

But the strategic shift also clearly acknowledges the significant resistance within the House Republican Conference to the existing proposal. 

Earlier this month, Boehner was forced to chop his initial version into three parts in an appeasement attempt aimed at Republicans to get it moving -- yet opposition persisted. Republican complaints included gripes about the price tag, the continuation of deficit spending, and exactly how much each district would reap.

More than 300 amendments were offered to the bill, nearly 100 from Republicans. 

Now, Steel says House GOP leaders are working with Mica and others to “determine the specific path forward.” 

The senior aide said the new bill would retain some of the original's key changes, including cutting red tape to expedite permitting, providing greater flexibility to states, and eliminating all earmarks.

The new plan also would follow Boehner's vision of linking energy production to highway and infrastructure funding, specifically by attaching to it the energy-production bill passed by the House last week.

"Now that the Republican leadership has shifted gears, we look forward to their reaching across the aisle and working with us to fashion a true bipartisan surface transportation bill," said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the transportation committee. "We will meet them at the intersection of fiscal common sense and good public policy."