Vol. 23 No. 20
A recent story in the Wall Street Journal shed some light on why discussions on the 15-month bill (July 2012 -through September 2013) have ground to a halt and why the prospect of reaching agreement on the bill by June 30 — or during the remainder of the current congressional session for that matter—appears in serious jeopardy. In a word, the Republican leadership has good reasons for not seeking a compromise on major legislative issues before the November election— they hope they may get a better deal next year. (“Republicans See Advantages in Go-Slow Approach on Bills”, WSJ, June 14)
Citing Republican sources, the article suggests that the House desire to go slow on major legislation, including the highway bill, is motivated by the rising expectations of GOP gains in the Senate in the upcoming election and of Mitt Romney’s chances of winning the White House. “Where is the upside?” the article quotes Rep. Scott Garret (R-NJ), a senior member of the House Budget Committee. “If we get a good majority in the Senate and win the White House, we will be on a very strong platform to do things we need to do.”
That the Republican position has hardened lately, leaves little doubt. In a terse statement issued on June 13, House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, who is co-chairman of the House-Senate conference committee, expressed disappointment that Senate negotiators have yet to move significantly on key House reform proposals. In addition, he said, the Senate leadership appears unwilling to compromise at all on the Keystone XL pipeline. His statement sent a clear signal that House Republicans were in no mood to compromise. This was also evident when a disappointed Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) emerged from a June 13 meeting in Speaker Boehner’s office, dropping her usual upbeat assessment of the negotiations’ progress in her weekly briefing with reporters.
After consulting with House Republican conferees, Rep. Mica issued a second statement on June 14 in which he identified four specific issues in contention: the Keystone pipeline, environmental streamlining, transportation enhancements and the Senate’s desire to create new federal programs (“while we should be consolidating and eliminating federal programs.”) Mica offered to negotiate these and other issues in good faith, provided “there must be a willingness on the part of the Senate to do the same.” But the Senate conferees have given no indication of a willingness to compromise on any of these issues. “They want nothing less than for the House to capitulate,” according to one Republican source.
A June 19 meeting between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) concluded in an appeal to the conference committee leaders to “redouble their efforts” to reach an agreement. But with the Republican conferees continuing to entertain serious questions about the Senate bill, and with Speaker Boehner unwilling to pass a bill supported by the House Democrats but opposed by a majority of his own caucus, few observers give this last ditch effort much chance of succeeding. Instead, attention is shifting to passing another extension, according to several House conferees.
An added obstacle to reaching an accommodation is a soured mood among House Republicans. . At an acrimonious rally organized by Sen. Boxer on June 13 and featuring seven other liberal Senators, House Republican opposition was vilified as “a bunch of radicals,” militants,” “extremists” and “fanatics.” House members have not reacted kindly to this name calling. “That’s hardly a way to win friends and influence people,” a senior House Republican aide told us. “This partisan sniping has only stiffened [House] resistance and alienated even the moderates.”
At this point it would take a miracle to reach a bicameral compromise by the end of the week as called for by a non-binding House resolution (passed by a vote of 386-34) and Sen. Boxer’s self-imposed deadline. That seems to be the preponderant opinion among industry representatives and independent congressional observers we have talked to. “There simply is not enough incentive for either side to give ground,” one lobbyist confided. “The best we can hope for is that Congress will vote another extension by June 30 and will not let the authorization expire.” Short of a major breakthrough in the negotiations in the next two days, a six-month extension through December 2012, as favored by Speaker Boehner, seems like the most likely outcome.
C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 22nd year of publication.