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John Boehner’s Highway Bill Fight in Last Round

After two and a half months of open hostility from his own Conference, numerous false starts, a short-term extension and a host of revisions and rewrites, Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday appeared close to passing some sort of highway extension legislation.

The House is scheduled today to take up a modified version of the Ohio Republican’s most recent plan — a 90-day extension of transportation programs that could include some reforms sought by conservatives as well as Keystone XL pipeline language, all of which are designed to give House Republicans leverage in conference negotiations with the Senate.

The legislation drew an immediate rebuke from the White House.

“Because this bill circumvents a long-standing and proven process for determining whether cross-border pipelines are in the national interest by mandating the permitting of the Keystone XL pipeline before a new route has been submitted and assessed, the President’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto this legislation,” the Office of Management and Budget announced in a Statement of Administration Policy on Tuesday.

While a veto threat might cause problems during the conference with the Senate, Boehner has had more pressing concerns, namely finding enough Republicans to even pass a bill in the House — which leadership aides hoped the current strategy would resolve.

Boehner came into the week intent on moving a “clean” 90-day extension of transportation programs along with language on the Keystone XL pipeline as a vehicle to begin conference proceedings with the Senate, which passed a bipartisan bill of its own last month with 74 votes.

Boehner had thought such a version had the best chance of passing the House on a party-line vote, since conservatives had bashed his previous plans, including a sweeping reform of highway and transit programs that also tied revenues from oil and gas exploration to funding for highways.

Late last week, Boehner tasked Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy with selling the bill to his Conference. The California Republican convened a Friday conference call on the bill and reached out to individuals in the GOP Conference.

But with conservatives demanding reforms be included — and threatening to once again blockade Boehner’s efforts on the transportation front — he agreed to allow a handful of amendments making key reforms to the program, most of which are expected to be passed during consideration of the bill today.

Although vote tallies are still unclear, leadership aides said they now have hope those amendments and the package of reforms will provide McCarthy with enough influence to score a majority vote.

But the plan doesn’t come risk-free. “It’s a dangerous strategy,” one veteran GOP aide said, explaining that while allowing a handful of amendments could, in theory, help round up enough votes to get the bill to conference, it could also end up angering Members who had wanted their own crack at modifying the bill.

Even if hurt feelings don’t derail the legislation, they could factor into any eventual vote on a conference report because those Members left out in the cold will be precluded from offering changes to a conference report.

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