by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
The committee of lawmakers appointed to negotiate a new federal highway bill met for the first time Tuesday, with members of the panel pledging bipartisanship but not straying far from their party’s starting lines.
After being selected as chairman of the transportation conference because House leaders were at the helm of the last round of bicameral negotiations on road and transit funding, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) pointed to the 74 votes the Senate’s version of the transportation bill received when it came up in March.
“If Sens. Boxer and Jim Inhofe can agree on a bill, we can all agree on a bill,” Boxer said to members of the 47-member transportation conference committee in making the case for her chamber’s two-year, $109 billion transportation bill. Inhofe (R-Okla.) is the conservative ranking member of the panel.
Boxer’s counterpart in the lower chamber, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), just as quickly made clear that the 33 members of the House on the transportation conference had no intention of rolling over and taking the Senate version of the highway bill.
“We can’t just continue to do throw money at problems,” Mica said. “We tried that on the stimulus bill.”
Boxer noted that it has been seven years since the last transportation conference was held in Congress.
She also acknowledged the low expectations of a deal given the fact that the talks are being held in an election year, saying “many pundits have predicted gloom and doom when it comes to this bill … but they were wrong in the past.”
Mica also took issue with prognostications from observers, saying the recently approved funding for the Federal Aviation Administration was proof a deal on highway funding was possible.
“I think this can be done and I think it’s important that we do get it done,” Mica said.
Mica said Republicans on the conference committee were willing to work with Democrats on finding common ground on transportation funding, but he added “we’re going to have to pay for this and pay for this responsibly.
“We’re not going to raise taxes,” Mica said. “Anyone who wants to raise taxes, you’re on the wrong committee.”
Other members of the panel similarly drew partisan lines on the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. Language mandating approved of the cross-country pipeline was added to the highway bill by the House, but is not included in the Senate’s version of the measure.
The pipeline was rejected earlier this year by President Obama, who has called frequently for Congress to pass a transportation bill but has issued a veto threat over the Keystone provision.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said both the highway bill and the Keystone approval would both help address unemployment in the nation.
“This highway bill is touted as a jobs bill and there is no question that Keystone would create jobs,” he said.
However, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) countered that the only way the conference committee would come to consensus is for Republicans to “work in a bipartisan manner and abandon some of the poison pills that have been discussed, such as the Keystone pipeline and environmental streamlining provisions.
“There is bipartisan support for some common sense streamlining measures, but the language attached to the House bill goes too far and undercuts NEPA,” Nadler said.
Other provisions discussed by the conference committee Tuesday included public transit funding, the classification of ash from coal plants, harbor dredging and the restoration of the Gulf Coast from the 2010 BP oil spill.
On the public transit funding, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pledged that he and other members of the conference committee from New York would insist on preserving it.
“There are many of us on this committee who are going to fight for it,” he said of public transportation that Republicans in the House tried to eliminate before passing their version of the highway bill.
Despite the fact that the GOP already relented on transit funding well before Tuesday’s conference meeting, Schumer told rural members of the panel that public transportation was “as important as roads are to many of you” to his constituents.
Even with that as a backdrop, both Boxer and Mica expressed optimism at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.
“I’m very pleased that everyone has had an opportunity to participate and that we have had a beginning open conference here,” Mica said in his closing remarks. “Everyone has contributed and everyone has a little bit of different ideas, and I think the important thing is that we blend them and we maintain our principles.”
“What I heard here today — I heard no lines in the sand and I heard a lot of passion on certain issues,” Boxer added. “But we didn’t hear the rhetoric. We just heard you speak to the heart about what is most important.”
Boxer pledged to do whatever was necessary to “improve the Senate bill,” a nod to her preferred outcome of the conference.
But she quickly added: “On the issues we’ve all expressed our views on one-side or the other, listen, we’re going to work together to get this done.”