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Debating Highway Bill Details

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Members of the transportation conference committee met Tuesday to begin hammering out the details of the final compromise measure.

“If Sen. Inhofe and Sen. Boxer can agree on a bill, we can all agree on a bill. If Sen. [Jeff] Sessions [R-Ala.] and Sen. [Bernie] Sanders [I-Vt.] can agree on a bill, we can all agree on a bill. If Sen. [Max] Baucus [D-Mont.] and Sen. [Roy] Blunt [R-Mo.] can agree on a bill, we can all agree on a bill,” Boxer said, adding that “we have the wind at our backs” because of the bipartisan vote on the Senate version and backing of industry groups.

How the negotiations are framed in the early days is critical for how the talks will proceed, as it will determine what issues can be put on the table. House Republicans remained intent on forcing as broad of a definition of what was germane to the conference as possible.

Conferees must “include some serious reforms. You can’t just continue to throw money at serious problems. They tried that with the stimulus bill,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica said.

“I’m here today to say let’s not just spend more money ... let’s have some serious reforms,” the Florida Republican added, warning that, “we’re not going to raise taxes. If you want to raise taxes, you’re on the wrong conference committee ... [and] we can’t have earmarks.”

Similarly, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) argued the conference must also include energy provisions and other reforms.

“To be successful, we need real reforms to our highway programs that will make the most efficient and effective use of the taxpayer’s dollar, and we need to seize the opportunity to do something good for our energy security, which is so essential to economic growth,” Upton said.

Still, the only area where there was significant daylight between Democrats and Senate Republicans was over the issue of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which House Republicans included in their version of the bill.

Inhofe and his fellow Senate Republicans repeatedly endorsed the idea of passing language to push the pipeline forward, arguing that it has strong support in both chambers and is a job creation project.

Inhofe seemed to view that as the only major potential hang-up facing the conference.

“Now, there are a large group of people saying we can’t resolve the differences between the House and Senate on tough issues like Keystone XL. We will prove these pessimists wrong as well. I’m not saying it won’t be challenging, but the truth is the stakes are too high not to get a highway bill done this year,” Inhofe said.

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