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GOP Freshmen Key to Highway Bill

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (left) and Chairman Barbara Boxer are on the conference committee hammering out a final highway bill.

As negotiators begin work on a surface transportation bill this week, the House Republican freshman class is yet again likely to be the wild card in determining whether the two sides can strike a deal.

Even though Democrats and Republicans successfully negotiated an extension of the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits earlier this year, more uncertainty looms over the conference committee this time around. Aides in leadership and close to the panel had difficulty gaming out what a final agreement might look like or how the conferees will get there because of the dynamics of the panel. Eight of the 20 conferees appointed by Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) are freshmen, and sources say how they swing will be crucial to how the process works out.

If the conservative newcomers are willing to give some ground to reach a compromise with Senate Democrats, the gamble to stack the panel with them could reward Boehner by making it easier to sell the deal to the rest of his Conference.

“It’s good to have those people invested in the process,” one Democratic leadership aide said of the GOP freshmen. “The million-dollar question will be: Will they be productive negotiators?”

The aide conceded that their presence on the committee could be a blessing or a curse. If the freshman Members try to swing the final product too far to the right, Democratic Senators — who largely feel they have the upper hand in negotiations — could balk. Indeed, the Senate is the only chamber that has passed a comprehensive measure; a two-year transportation and infrastructure bill passed on a broad, bipartisan 74-22 vote. Both co-sponsors, Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) are conferees. House Republicans are working off a bill that leaders declined to bring to the floor because of a lack of GOP rank-and-file support.

Given the Senate GOP’s support for that chamber’s measure, House Republicans could find themselves holding a lonely vigil for a more conservative product. Still, House GOP conferees will hold plenty of sway. Their approval would make final House passage of a compromise much less complicated, House aides say. And Democrats know it, too.

“If they sign their name, they tend to bring people along with them,” the Democratic aide said.

The full conference committee will hold its first formal meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Staff met for an informational and organizational meeting last Wednesday. Before last week’s recess, Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee met among themselves, as did the entire slate of Democratic conferees.

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