Speaker Refashions Transit Bill
Once again, it appears Speaker John Boehner might have overestimated his Conference’s willingness to support one of his legislative packages and finds himself forced to scrap plans for a grand transportation and energy bill.
The legislation, which will now be broken into three smaller parts in the hopes of salvaging at least the energy portions, was expected to be the Ohio Republican’s most substantial mark on policy, fundamentally reforming how the government funds highway and mass transit projects.
But, facing a revolt not just from conservatives but also from rank-and-file Members with parochial concerns, Boehner abandoned that plan, and the bill instead underwent the legislative equivalent of being drawn and quartered.
The decision to carve up the bill for parts took much of the House by surprise. Just hours before the Rules Committee was expected to take up the bill, Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Boehner released a joint statement announcing the decision and attempting to put the best spin on the situation.
“Republicans pledged to pass bills in a more transparent manner and reverse the era of quickly moving massive bills across the floor without proper examination. Accordingly, the energy/infrastructure jobs plan will be considered on the floor in the same manner in which it was written and voted upon in committee — in separate pieces,” Boehner and Dreier said.
Such a process will allow “each major component of the plan to be debated and amended more openly, rather than as a single ‘comprehensive’ bill with
limited debate and limited opportunity for amendment,” they added.
Democrats brushed aside Boehner’s reasoning.
“Despite their spin, it appears Republican leaders are starting to get nervous that they do not have the votes to pass this highly controversial bill, which should not surprise anyone, given no other surface transportation bill has generated near the controversy, rancor or partisanship in the 56-year history of the Interstate Highway System,” Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Nick Rahall
(D-W.Va.) said Tuesday.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) agreed, telling reporters “the Republicans are not united, and they’re trying to figure out how to get from where they are to where they want to be.”
“They’re not splitting it up for us, they’re splitting it up because they’re trying to resolve their internal deep disagreements. They’re a caucus divided among themselves,” he added.
Rules Committee Democrats also are expressing outrage about the move. In a letter addressed to Dreier, the Members said splitting the package up into “random bills” is making “an already bad situation worse,” and they called on Dreier to postpone the Rules meeting.
“At best, this is a thinly veiled attempt to force through bad legislation that many of your own Members do not support,” they wrote. “At worst, this new approach is in direct violation of your own leadership’s stated commitment to transparency and undermines the integrity of the legislative process for the sake of political expediency.”
Privately, GOP aides said leadership had come to terms with the fact that parochial divisions within the Republican Conference, united Democratic opposition and a conservative faction opposed to federal highway spending had made the measure politically unwieldy and all but certain to be defeated on the floor.
According to a senior aide familiar with the decision, Boehner’s bill — which had originally linked transportation spending with energy production revenues — will now be separated into an energy bill, a stand-alone transportation measure and a package of ways to pay for the overall package.
The energy and pay-for bills are expected to pass easily. Neither include any significantly new language, and House Republicans have already passed much of the language in separate legislation.
The transportation bill, however, is where the difficulty comes in. One Republican aide said the measure has pitted GOP factions against one another on issues ranging from preferential treatment for certain ports, public transportation spending, offshore drilling and even anti-union provisions.
“This is a mess,” the aide said.
A GOP leadership aide rejected that characterization. “It’s all scheduling. Nothing is or was ‘doomed,’” the leadership aide said.
Meanwhile, Senate leaders are working on a list of amendments that would be offered to a $109 billion measure on that chamber’s floor that would reauthorize surface transportation programs for two years.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is walking a fine line as he looks to whittle the amendment list but retain enough Republican support to pass the legislation. Aides expect debate to slip until after the Presidents Day recess.
On Tuesday, Reid complained of GOP efforts to offer amendments not germane to the transportation bill, but he said he has agreed to allow a vote on an amendment to allow employers and insurance companies to opt out of requirements in the health care reform law that would violate their religious principles.
Details are being worked out, said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a lead sponsor of the amendment along with GOP Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.).
“I will continue to work with my colleagues to find a way to be sure that people who have faith-based objections to these new mandates have right of action that allows them to challenge those mandates,” Blunt said Tuesday.
The amendment comes in response to a rule put forth by the Obama administration that would require insurance companies to provide and pay for contraception services. The rule initially would have required employers, including Catholic hospitals, to provide and pay for the services, but the White House changed it to accommodate religious leaders’ positions.
Republicans charge the rule still does not take into account the conscience of religious employers, such as the Catholic Church, which opposes contraception.
Democrats argue that contraception services are a basic health care need and that the modified rule is a compromise that takes into account women’s health and church conscience by switching the burden to the insurer from the employer.
Other possible amendments include a proposal approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, which Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) hopes to offer. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) hopes to offer an amendment to delay and alter boiler pollution regulations.
Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.