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House GOP Faces Stark Highway Bill Options

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Majority Leader Harry Reid (above) said he has spoken with the president about a transportation bill making its way through the Senate. Speaker John Boehner is working on a similar bill in the House, but intraparty conflicts may stall his measure.

House GOP leaders are facing a critical moment in their efforts to move surface transportation legislation today and will bluntly warn their Members that they need to coalesce around one of their various proposals or risk being boxed in by the Senate.

Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) — who had made the highway bill his signature policy issue this year — will use an early morning meeting of the Republican Conference to lay out the options facing lawmakers, including passing some version of his original five-year spending plan, passing an 18-month version or waiting for the Senate to complete its version and taking up that.

Some within Boehner’s Conference favor simply passing the Senate’s two-year version — which was crafted specifically to avoid the kinds of parochial pitfalls that have stalled his bill — but for the Ohio Republican, waiting for that measure presents its own problems.

“The reality is that the Senate [bill] could pass with substantial majorities,” one GOP aide said, explaining that such a scenario would make it very difficult to pass a House version of the measure that is based on the types of spending reforms conservatives want.

Although the Senate bill would likely pass the House on a massive bipartisan basis, with most Democrats and a solid number of Republicans supporting the measure, it would also undermine
Republicans’ efforts to demonstrate their commitment to fiscal restraint.

Unfortunately for Boehner, if he’s going to persuade his Conference to accept some sort of legislation, he’ll need to do it soon: An increasing number of House Republicans appear to be comfortable with the idea of accepting the Senate bill, and Congress is facing an end-of-the-month deadline for completing work or it risks having highway programs lapse.

At least for now, Republicans seem confident some sort of deal can be reached.

“I can’t imagine a scenario in which we have a shutdown of the federal highway program. There will be some sort of highway bill before the end of the month,” predicted one senior GOP leadership aide, who cautioned that there remains a remote chance that a short-term extension may be needed.

House Democrats appeared to revel in Boehner’s troubles.

When asked to predict whether a bill will emerge, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer quipped, “Well I don’t want to put odds on that because the Republican Party is such a deeply divided party.”

The Maryland Democrat pointed to last summer’s problems passing a Federal Aviation Administration extension, and the public outcry that occurred when Congress let the program shut down, as added pressure on the GOP.

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