White House, Hill Dems urge quick House action on Senate transportation bill

by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
3/14/12

The White House applauded the Senate for passing a $109 billion transportation bill Wednesday and encouraged the House to quickly follow suit.

In a 74-22 vote Wednesday afternoon, the Senate approved a measure (S. 1813) that would fund road and bridge projects for the next two years. President Obama supported the Senate transportation bill, and the White House moved quickly after its passage Wednesday to ratchet up pressure on the House.

“We are pleased that senators have continued the tradition of working across the aisle to pass a bill that keeps Americans at work maintaining our nation’s vital infrastructure and provides states and localities the certainty they need to plan ahead,” the White House said in a news release. “We are hopeful that the House will move swiftly and in similarly bipartisan fashion to do the same.”

The House has to either pass a transportation bill of its own or take up the Senate-approved version of the measure before a March 31 deadline for the expiration of current highway funding, which authorizes the collection of the federal gas tax in addition to paying for road and transit projects.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the Speaker would prefer a longer bill than the one passed by the Senate on Wednesday, but reiterated that the lower chamber would be open to trying to pass the Senate bill if it could not reach an agreement on a measure of its own.

“We are all working together toward coalescing around a longer-term approach with needed reforms,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement provided to The Hill.

“If we can’t get there, we may have to take up something like the Senate bill — but we’d prefer to take the responsible approach on this and get a longer term bill through the House.”

The White House, for its part, characterized the Senate vote Wednesday as a critical step that should be repeated soon by the House.

“Maintaining a world class infrastructure system is critical to creating an economy built to last,” the White House said. “Our country needs and deserves a commitment to surface transportation that will create jobs by rebuilding and modernizing our roads and bridges and allows us to compete and grow in the global economy.”

Shortly after the Senate vote to approve the transportation measure, Democrats in both chambers began to apply pressure on the House to take up the bill too.

“When you have a bill that gets 74 votes at a time when everything is so contentious, you barely squeak by on most of these votes, they ought to take a serious look at taking this bill up and passing it,” Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a news conference immediately after the vote.

“It is a well-thought-out bill, it is a reform bill,” said Boxer, who was the bill’s lead sponsor.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) were also quick to urge House Republicans to abandon their partisan bill in favor of the upper-chamber legislation.

“The House Republican transportation bill is bad for jobs, bad for public safety, and bad for our economic growth,” Pelosi said in a statement. “We must pursue a different path — the bipartisan path of enacting the Senate bill — to make the investments necessary to strengthen our economy and our middle class, create jobs, and rebuild America.”

Outside groups began pressuring the House as well.

“The public wants and needs safe and reliable mobility,” AAA President Bob Darbelnet said in a news release. “Few bills directly impact the entire fabric of the nation as does the transportation bill. The pressure is now squarely on the House of Representatives to promptly address this critical legislation.”

The BlueGreen Alliance environmental group agreed.

“The House needs to follow the Senate’s lead and pass a bill that also fully funds programs, maintains transit, protects U.S. workers, and makes our transportation network more efficient,” BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director Dave Foster said in a news release. “The clock is ticking on our current transportation policy, and this time Congress can’t fail to send a long-term bill to the president’s desk by March 31.”

The BlueGreen Alliance and other environmental groups had vocally opposed provisions in the original House version of the transportation bill that would have tied infrastructure spending to increased domestic oil drilling.

Foster said the Senate version of the transportation measure “isn’t perfect, but it’s an improvement over proposed House legislation that would be disastrous for our nation’s infrastructure and the economy.”

— Russell Berman, Mike Lillis and Ben Geman contributed to this report.

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