Lawmakers Cross Party Lines on Transpo Funding as Debate Rages

An 18-month extension of existing transportation law cleared the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee today, but not before spirited debate on a proposal billed as a compromise with House members who remain strongly opposed to the Senate’s stopgap.

Sen_Barbara_Boxer_D_CA_1.jpgBarbara Boxer (D-CA), chairman of the Senate environment committee (Photo: Politics Now)

The "clean" re-upping of the 2005 transport law, stripped of the few reforms the Obama administration had proposed, passed with one dissenting vote: Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), who lost a bid — on his birthday — to cut the extension down to 12 months.

"Everyone realizes the current law is inadequate to get the job done," said Voinovich, who has aligned with Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and his House transportation committee to fight the White House and Senate on the extension.

"We have a Senate and we have a House … what I’m proposing here is something very reasonable."

Voinovich’s compromise won support from three Democrats, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (MN), whose panel has the tricky task of approving $20 billion in spending cuts or offsets to keep the nation’s highway trust fund flush until after the 2010 midterm elections.

But the 12-month proposal fell on an 8-11 vote, with environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) offering Voinovich a contrite birthday consolation and a promise to tackle a "transformational" transportation bill — once the thorny question of revenue is sorted out.

"There is way less of a chance that, if we go 18 months, we’ll have to do another extension," Boxer said. Though "I respect, like, love" Oberstar, the chairman added, "in order to meet his six-year bill, you’d have to double the gas tax."

Boxer has said she is open to indexing the gas tax, which has gone untouched by Washington since 1993, to inflation. Any increases, however, face an uphill battle winning over re-election-minded lawmakers.

The 18-month extension must be merged with corresponding legislation from the Senate Commerce and Banking Committees before heading to the Finance panel for its revenue portion to be completed.

Yet the bill appears set to founder in the House, given Oberstar’s fierce opposition, leaving Congress without a clear path on transportation policy and only three weeks to go to meet the U.S. DOT’s deadline for bailing out the highway trust fund.

  • Senator Love

    I respect, like, love Oberstar, but like, it’s an election year and American’s aren’t like used to like paying for anything anymore. It’s like we’re representing a country that like wants free roads and stuff. Um like, look at California. So like, we really like can’t possibly raise the gas tax even if it’s really low. Maybe we could like get a special deal like prescription drugs from Canada and sell all the roads and stuff to rich companies and they’ll give us lots of money. I’ll talk to Jim about that.

  • Boxer has said she is open to indexing the gas tax, which has gone untouched by Washington since 1993, to inflation.

    Why not charge the gas tax as a percentage of purchase price, like the sales tax? The price of gas is going to go up more rapidly than inflation.

  • Grinner

    Correction: Mr. Baucus is a senator from Montana (MT).

  • Joe S

    Does this moment in time even qualify as an election year? Mid-terms are 16 months away. If you’re a member of Congress and you’re not serious about reforming transportation policy now, why would anyone believe you’ll get serious in 18 months?

  • Grinner

    By pushing the new deal out 18 months, Congresspeople can use it as a campaign issue, a la “re-elect me, because i have the seniority to make meaningful changes in the transportation law, which we all know is broken.” On the otherhand, if they support a 12 month proposal, then they actually either have to be in Washington to vote “the will of their constituents” (keep gas taxes low!) when they’d rather be campaigning, or they will have to accept what Rep. Oberstar gets voted through a quorum. Either way, they provide their opponents with ammunition.

  • How does expect anything from the federal government on this front? Oil wars, stimulus money spent on roads, auto bailouts… aren’t these enough to convince one that at the federal level the government is controlled by the fossil-fuel industry? But they can’t control every municipality. You can have free public transit in your home town for 60 basis points of tax. The benefits are immediate and you will get the money back ten times over.

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