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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.

It was a conservative Oklahoma Republican who told the House GOP not to even start.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s conference committee negotiations on a transportation reauthorization bill, Sen. James Inhofe threw cold water on any hopes House Republicans had that their Senate colleagues would put up a fight with Democrats on the long-delayed bill, lecturing conservatives from the House on the art of compromise.

House Republicans came into the meeting hoping to use Speaker John Boehner’s (Ohio) sweeping reform to transportation programs as their negotiating position — despite the fact that Boehner was unable to pass that measure and the highway bill that finally did pass the House did not include most of those reforms. Among other provisions, Boehner’s original bill linked domestic energy production to highway funding.

But Inhofe, one of the most conservative lawmakers on the Hill and the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, made it clear early he would not be backing the play.

“I say to my conservative friends here ... on issues like national security and infrastructure, I’m a big spender. That’s what we’re here for,” Inhofe warned.

Indeed, Inhofe repeatedly noted that he and Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (Calif.) have, despite their ideological differences, found common ground on transportation.

“As many of you have heard me say before, on environmental issues, Barbara Boxer and I couldn’t be farther apart, but on infrastructure issues we come together because we both understand its importance,” Inhofe said, before launching into something of a mini lecture on compromise and the workings of a conference committee.

“This is the fourth time I have been part of a highway conference,” Inhofe said, directing his comments to the cadre of freshman House Republicans who are expected to be the most difficult to convince. “Each time there has been a healthy tension between the two chambers on what each brings to the conference. The brilliance of our legislative process is that the House and Senate first work through the issue independent of each other and then come together.

“Although often painful, messy and at times frustrating, it works because the end product is a mix of the best ideas from the House and Senate,” he added.

Similarly, Boxer sought to frame the issue as one of the two sides coming to terms over the narrow differences between the Senate’s long-term extension and the House’s pared-down version — rather than Boehner’s more ambitious original plan.

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