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House GOP leaders weigh scaling back highway bill

The House bill ran into trouble on both the left and the right even though Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and Republican leaders had added several sweeteners, including increased offshore oil drilling, aimed at solidifying conservative support for the measures.

By JOAN LOWY
The Associated Press

2/24/2012

WASHINGTON — Facing a revolt in their ranks, House Republicans leaders are considering significantly downsizing a bill that was supposed to provide a long-term blueprint for federal highway, transit and other transportation programs.

GOP leaders are weighing three key changes: reducing the lengthen of the bill to something less than its current 4½ years, cutting annual transportation spending below current levels and postponing a controversial proposal to change the way mass transit programs are funded, a Republican leadership aide said. The aide asked not to be identified because any changes need to be discussed further with GOP committee chairmen and rank-and-file Republicans.

The changes would mark a significant retreat from the $260 billion bill House Republicans were trying to pass late last week. It would also bring the measure closer in shape to a bipartisan transportation bill in the Senate that would spend $109 billion over two years.

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The House bill ran into trouble on both the left and the right even though Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and Republican leaders had added several sweeteners, including increased offshore oil drilling, aimed at solidifying conservative support for the measures. That wasn't enough for conservative interest groups, who complained that it spent too much money. Democrats complained that it didn't spend enough money, undermined environmental protections and penalized union workers.

A spokesman for Mica declined to comment, but Democrats — who said they were shut out of the drafting of the bill — welcomed the GOP's new direction.

"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," Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said in a statement. "We will meet them at the intersection of fiscal common sense and good public policy."

Congress is facing a March 31 deadline to pass some kind of transportation bill. That's when the authority for current highway and transit programs expires. Congress could simply extend that authority, but that would only put off another looming problem — the federal trust fund that pays for those programs is projected to go broke sometime in the 2013 federal fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1. Revenue from federal gas and diesel taxes has declined while spending has not, draining the trust fund.

One of the chief aims of the House bill was to overhaul federal transportation programs, placing them on a more sound fiscal footing. Even so, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the programs would go into the red by 2016 under the bill.

The abbreviated bill would still include several GOP policy goals, including streamlining environmental regulations to expedite approval of construction projects, giving states greater flexibility over how to spend federal aid and expanded oil drilling. But a lot of the key decisions on how to handle — and pay for — transportation programs would be put off until after the November election.

Republican leaders are also sticking by their vow that the bill won't contain any earmarks — provisions that direct spending to lawmakers' pet projects. Earmarks have been roundly criticized as wasting money on low priority projects, but they also have had the virtue of helping corral votes in favor of passage. The last long-term transportation plan, which expired in 2009, was laden with over 6,300 earmarks. The long-term bill Republican leaders want to downsize has no earmarks.

Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at kevinj@thetrucker.com.