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Federal Transportation Bill

House GOP Tries to Horse-Trade Senate Bill For Keystone Pipeline


In another desperate attempt to push forward their fossil fuel agenda, House Republicans have indicated that even though they've been incapable of passing a transportation bill, they're willing to go to conference committee and pass the Senate bill. All the Senate Democrats have to do in return is approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

Our sources had predicted the House GOP would pull something like this. This is the "shell" bill that the House was expected to present as a sort of placeholder to conference with the Senate bill, just to get something moving.

The House doesn't have a prayer of passing a real bill to conference with the Senate bill, so they're bringing an extension. That's right -- they're bringing a 90-day extension to the Senate and saying, now we have to reconcile the differences between these bills. One of those bills is real legislation that includes real policy changes, and one is just a shell. But Republicans still hope they can negotiate changes in conference, even though they don't have a bill showing the will of the House.

The Transportation Committee is drafting the extension/pipeline bill now. Sources say it will come to the floor the week of April 23.

It's a mix of the best case scenario -- getting to conference, one way or another, with the Senate bill -- and the worst case scenario -- holding the transportation program as ransom to get the pipeline rammed through. It's the sort of nasty politics this Congress is known for.

Clearly, the House GOP leadership now wishes this whole transportation thing would just go away. They have egg on their faces from repeated failures to get even their own caucus on board with their drilling-and-driving plan, and they still have no idea about how to deal with it.

The House hasn't been able to pass anything dealing with infrastructure, but they have passed three -- count 'em, three -- bills to expand oil drilling. If there's one thing Republicans can come together on, it's oil drilling. Those bills don't actually say anything about transportation (even though they were supposedly the foundation of the GOP transportation agenda).

It's somewhat surprising that the House wouldn't conference those bills with the Senate bill, instead of an extension. From what I hear, there's no rule stopping them; it's just that the Senate likely wouldn't tolerate it. Experts say the House wouldn't want to go to conference with no position on the transportation policies laid out in the Senate bill -- but that's exactly what they're doing now.

One way or another, the next move on transportation will be close to no move at all. It will be some form of extending current law, perhaps with a few adjustments, until after the election. With any luck Congress will figure out a way to deal with the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, which will hit before the election, but it's anyone's guess whether or how they'll do that.

Even though they just solemnly swore to attend to the transportation reauthorization in the next 90 days (and no more extensions!), the House is about to pretend to be way too busy with the budget to pass a real bill. It's all for show, because really, if they had a game plan for transportation, they'd act on it. But there's still too much infighting within the Republican Party to present a united front.

If the two houses do go to conference, it will still be a mess. With no House bill to work with, the two sides will have to negotiate everything from scratch. House Republicans won't accept the bipartisan Senate bill without some face-saving policy changes. And even the Senate bill at this point is practically just an extension: If it becomes law June 30, it will only be in effect 15 months before a new law is necessary.

June 30 is the deadline, when the ninth extension expires. And with the two Houses wrangling in conference, it could easily go down to the wire again with both sides of the aisle accusing each other of jeopardizing 1.8 million jobs and strangling the transportation industry. It will seem as if there is no way to avoid such an outcome in the face of such monumental intransigence and political cat-fighting, but somehow they always figure out something.

And then there's the budget Congress is so busy not passing. Sometimes Congress passes one, sometimes they don't. The conventional wisdom is that this is going to be one of those years where they don't. The Senate Budget Committee will pass one, against the wishes of Majority Leader Harry Reid, who won't bring it up on the floor. They'll just ignore House Budget Chair Paul Ryan's budget, which would have cut transportation by 36 percent and would have almost certainly left nothing for high-speed rail, livability initiatives, or other reform priorities. Pretty much the only purpose the Ryan budget now serves is as an election-year talking point for Democrats to say what heartless monsters the deficit hawks on the other side of the aisle are.

In my conversations about the budget, speculation arose that the Supreme Court decision on the health care law could have some impact, as deficit projections would change if the law is struck down. It's hard to say what that would mean for transportation, and it probably wouldn't have much impact at all in 2013. But it's a good reminder that in Washington, all things are connected.

Even if Congress never passes a real 2013 budget, they still need to decide on appropriations, which is essentially the same thing. The House will work on that for the next few months. The Senate probably won't work very hard on it. No one expects spending to be decided until after Election Day.

See you next week.

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