The White House formally threatened a veto of the House version of a surface transportation bill, opening the question of whether any long-term bill will get signed before March when current funding on roads and bridges expires.
There are currently different versions of the surface transportation bill moving through each chamber of Congress. The House bill extends funding for five years at a relatively puny cost of $260 billion, with multiple poison pills included. According to the statement of Administration policy, the House bill “would reduce safety throughout the Nation’s transportation system by failing to make necessary investments in roads and bridges, limiting funding to State and local governments for highway safety, and repealing requirements that help ensure the safe handling of hazardous materials by railroads.”
The House bill also includes a provision to force permitting of the Keystone XL pipeline and a measure to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, and in fact it links funding for highways and bridges to additional oil exploration. Finally, the bill would end the practice of dedicating a portion of highway funds for mass transit, which would impact low-income Americans by forcing either cutbacks to mass transit or increased fare costs.
John Boehner has problems, not only with the White House, but with his own party on the highway bill. He had to split up the bill into three different pieces, to allow recalcitrant Republicans to oppose certain pieces. The energy elements and the transportation elements will get voted on separately this week.
The Senate bill, which passed out of the Environment and Public Works Committee with an overwhelming bipartisan vote, only extends surface transportation funding for two years, at a cost of $108 billion. Neither bill goes nearly far enough to fund critical infrastructure projects, nor do they wrestle with diminishing dedicated funding through gas taxes which haven’t increased in over a decade. But the Senate bill maintains the dedicated mass transit funding and does not deal with Keystone XL or ANWR. The bill cleared cloture on the motion to proceed by 85-11; it is now on the Senate floor, although Republicans plan to try to attach a number of ideological amendments, including a Keystone XL provision and the Blunt amendment on conscience exemptions in health care.
The White House says they are “committed to working on a bipartisan basis on a surface transportation reauthorization bill that provides the necessary funding to modernize the Nation’s surface transportation infrastructure, increase transportation options, maintain and create good paying jobs, and ensure lasting economic competitiveness.” But they surely know that neither bill will actually go that far. It’s just a matter of choosing between one with a bunch of disastrous elements, and another, which has none of those but which is too small for the task at hand.
UPDATE: Speaker Boehner has now delayed a vote on the transportation bill, according to The Hill.