Oberstar Looks to Trip Up Jobs Plan

Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:43pm

Democratic leaders eager to notch a much-needed win on a jobs package are encountering stiff resistance from a pocket of House Democrats that could scramble plans to clear the bill this week.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is leading a revolt by lawmakers angry with how highway funds are doled out under the $15 billion Senate version of the bill, which passed with wide bipartisan support Wednesday morning. And Oberstar claimed Wednesday night that the measure as is lacks the votes to pass.

“There are not the votes to pass it right now, so it’s got to be changed,” Oberstar said.

And members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition were raising separate concerns about whether the Senate bill complies with pay-as-you-go budgeting requirements.

The hitch threatens to upend a push by Democratic leaders on both sides of the Capitol to get the measure to the president’s desk this week and thereby boost momentum for a renewed stab at comprehensive health care reform.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) earlier Wednesday said she was hopeful the House could approve the package this week — a goal that she said could require lawmakers to swallow their concerns. “Some Members have some things they’d like to see. … I’m not sure they can make it into this bill,” she said.

But House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said House Democrats could still make changes to the Senate bill and approve the package this week by working out an agreement with the other chamber outside of formal conference negotiations. House Democratic leaders were still struggling with how to proceed at press time, sources said.

At issue is the Senate formula for giving out $932 million in federal dollars for highway projects. Oberstar and others on his panel complained that more than half that money would go to four states — California, Illinois, Washington and Louisiana — while others receive a relative pittance or nothing at all. And Pelosi’s home state stands to get the most of all, $278 million, according to the committee.

Oberstar said “dozens and dozens” of lawmakers object to the scheme and would oppose it, pointing to 23 Democrats who signed onto a letter this week challenging it. He predicted others would join them.

[IMGCAP(1)]The blowup illustrates that even as Democrats try to demonstrate their leadership chops by reaching out to Republicans, they face serious problems harmonizing their agenda internally. Oberstar complained that his staff had tried to address the funding formula with their Senate counterparts but had gotten nowhere. “It’s like sending a message to outer space. Nothing comes back,” he said. Asked why lawmakers were having such a hard time coming to agreement on a jobs bill, he quipped, “I guess all those Senators have jobs.”

The resistance in the House came as support for the Senate’s approach appeared to be growing among Democrats off Capitol Hill. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine hailed Wednesday’s 70-28 Senate vote and called on the House to quickly pass the measure.

“This legislation will support ongoing investments in infrastructure and boost small businesses, both of which are major drivers of job growth,” Kaine said in a statement. “Jobs remain priority number one for the President, for Democrats in Congress and for the Party at-large and I am grateful to those Republicans who joined us in supporting the President’s effort to rebuild our economy through job creation. … That is why I am urging swift passage of this legislation by the House of Representatives so that the President may sign the bill and we can continue our historic effort to build a 21st century economy.”

In a speech at the Business Roundtable on Wednesday, President Barack Obama also hailed the Senate’s vote, calling it a necessary first step in aiding the struggling economy. “The jobs bill now working through Congress is similarly designed to be targeted and temporary, and I am pleased that a few hours ago, the Senate just passed a series of tax cuts for small businesses that hire more workers. This is an important step forward in putting more Americans back to work as soon as possible,” he said.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, were looking to regroup after the first time Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been unable to keep his Conference together since early last year. Some 13 Republicans sided with Democrats in supporting the package, put together by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Reid torpedoed a broader, bipartisan package negotiated by Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and instead put forth the more targeted $15 billion plan.

Republican lawmakers acknowledged Wednesday that Reid’s decision to pursue a narrow package of jobs provisions that individually had broad bipartisan support made it difficult for McConnell to enforce party discipline. In particular, it short-circuited McConnell’s ability to use complaints about a lack of GOP input or amendments as a rallying cry, since so many members of his Conference essentially backed the bill as is. But McConnell may put his whipping skills into action later on as Reid plans to push through a series of potentially more controversial jobs bills.

“Mitch is going to ask Members to take some pretty tough votes on these more expensive packages,” one Republican Senator said, arguing that as a result it may work in McConnell’s favor to “let people go their own way” on the first jobs vote.

But, Republicans warned, McConnell is unlikely to make a habit of allowing his Conference to break ranks.

“At some point the leader is going to have to put his foot down in defense of minority rights,” the GOP Senator said.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) agreed, saying the GOP can’t roll over every time Reid throws up another popular jobs package.

“I think you’ve got to pick your fights,” Cornyn said. “At some point, though, we’re going to have to take a stand to protect minority rights. … This is not a dictatorship.

And, Cornyn said, that time could be sooner rather than later — particularly if Reid loads up the second jobs bills due out next week with partisan provisions. Should Reid “introduce just a partisan proposal, this is where we would choose to take a stand,” Cornyn said.