Obama: Highway bill used to be the ‘easiest bill to pass in Washington’

by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper

It used to be easy for Congress to agree on passing a bill for new transportation spending, President Obama argued in a speech to a construction union Monday.

Lawmakers in the House and the Senate have agreed to hold conference negotiations on a new funding bill for road and transit projects, but most observers do not expect any more than continuing resolutions of the current funding mechanism to become law before elections in November.

In a speech to the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department, Obama argued Monday that the House should accept the Senate’s version of the transportation bill — a two-year, $109 billion measure he said was “ready to go, ready to put folks back to work.”

“As we speak, the House Republicans are refusing to pass a bipartisan bill that could guarantee work for millions of construction workers,” the president said before lamenting the lack of progress thus far in congressional negotiations on the highway bill.

“The easiest bill to pass in Washington used to be getting roads and bridges built, because it’s not like only Democrats are allowed to use these things,” Obama continued. “Everybody is permitted. Everybody needs them.”

The House has steadfastly resisted pressure from Obama and other Democrats to take up the Senate’s version of the highway bill, passing a pair of short-term extensions of current funding through Sept. 30 to carry into the conference with the Democratically-controlled upper chamber.

Obama said Monday that Congress not passing a multi-year transportation bill this year “makes no sense.

“Congress needs to do the right thing,” he said. “Pass this bill right away. It shouldn’t be that hard. … Not everything should be subject to thinking about the next election instead of thinking about the next generation.”

Obama’s point about the ability of prior Congresses to pass transportation bills more easily than the current crop of lawmakers has been echoed by veterans of prior highway bills on both sides of the aisle.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who was a Republican member of the House before he was appointed by Obama in 2009, said recently that when he was in Congress, lawmakers agreed regularly on five- or six-year transportation bills.

But LaHood said it is harder now for Congress to reach a consensus on highway bills that lengthy.

“The reason [the Senate] did a two-year bill is because they could find $109 billion,” he said during a transportation event in Washington. “They couldn’t find $500 billion or $600 billion. That’s what you need to do a five- or six-year bill.”

Similarly, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) have both attributed their trouble convincing Republicans to support their proposal for a five-year, $260 billion transportation bill to their inability to offer earmarks to legislators who are on the fence.

“It’s an awful lot harder to win votes than it used to be,” Boehner said of the highway bill negotiations during a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.

“Why? Part of it is because this majority listened to the people and banned earmarks,” Boehner continued in the CPAC speech. “We sacrificed a tool of power that’s been around for decades.”

The committee of lawmakers appointed to finalize the highway bill is scheduled to hold its first meeting next Tuesday.



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