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Hopes for a Compromise on the Highway Bill Are Fading

Posted by Ken Orski on Monday, June 18th, 2012

Innovation NewsBriefs
Vol. 23, No. 20

A story in the June 14 edition of the Wall Street Journal explains why  discussions on the highway bill have ground to a near-halt and why the prospect of reaching agreement on the 15-month bill by June 30 — or indeed during the remainder of the current congressional session —appears more and more doubtful. In a word, the Republican leadership has good reasons for not seeking a compromise on major legislative issues including the highway bill, before the November election— they hope they may get a better deal next year.

That the Republican position is hardening leaves little doubt. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, in a terse and sharply worded statement on June 13, 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. While issuing a perfunctory  expression of hope about reaching a bicameral agreement, his statement, and that of Mica’s colleague on the Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), indicate that House Republicans are in no mood to compromise. This was also evident when a disappointed Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) emerged from a Wednesday morning meeting in Speaker Boehner’s office, dropping her usual upbeat assessment of the negotiations’ progress  in her weekly briefing with reporters.

In a second statement,  issued on June 14 after consulting with House Republican conferees, Mica offered to negotiate in good faith, provided  “there must be a willingness on the part of the Senate to do the same.” He then went on to point out four specific areas of disagreement: the Keystone pipeline, environmental streamlining, transportation enhancements and  creation of new federal programs (“while we should be consolidating and eliminating federal programs.”) The Senate conferees have given no indication of a willingness to compromise on any of these issues. “They pretty much want the Senate bill,” according to one House source.

The Wall Street Journal article (“Republicans See Advantages in Go-Slow Approach on Bills”) provides an insight  into what is behind  the Republican strategy. 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 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.”

Adding to this bullish assessment of the GOP’s political prospects is a souring mood among House leaders and Republican negotiators. They are not reacting kindly to the drumbeat of accusations and name calling  by the bill’s Senate proponents. Republican opposition has been called “militants,” “radicals,” and “extremists.”   “That’s no way to win friends and influence people,” one senior House Republican aide told us. “This partisan sniping is only stiffening opposition and alienating even the moderates.”

“I would be very much surprised if the parties reached agreement before the June 30 deadline, ” a veteran congressional observer noted at a meeting we attended. “Neither party is negotiating in good faith. …Both are playing the blame game and both are digging in their heels. … It’s a recipe for a stalemate “

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.

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