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Seven Questions About the Transportation Bill Conference

4:14 PM EDT on May 8, 2012

The first meeting of the transportation bill conference committee started today at 3:00. (To familiarize yourself with the participants, see Ben's reports on the House and Senate conferees.) We're live-blogging it, beginning to end, on Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

It's unusual for conferences to meet in public, and leaders have indicated that this won't be the only meeting they have in front of television cameras. Still, the sausage-making always happens behind closed doors. Here's what we're looking for today:

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Will anything come of it? "The first day will tell you exactly nothing," Scott Slesinger, NRDC's director of legislative affairs, told reporters last week. "You'll walk out of there convinced that there's no way they're going to do a bill."

In fact, the conventional wisdom right now is that this whole process will end in yet another extension, probably until the lame-duck session after the November election. But this conference committee could lay the groundwork for that bill. Both parties want to get a bill done, but Republican leaders are worried that their base will revolt at the sight of them negotiating with Democrats. So, in public they'll be all hard-line rhetoric and uncompromising conservatism, and when the cameras are off they'll horse-trade.

How strong is the Senate's hand? The House has pretty limited leverage in this process because they didn't pass a real transportation bill. The Senate is bringing to conference a bill that got a remarkable vote of confidence from senators across the political spectrum, and "the House sent over beach ball," according to NRDC's David Goldston.

"The House can't figure out how to get even its own members together so they send these partial things over to the Senate to cause trouble," said Goldston, "while the Senate has a bill that's been passed by about three-quarters of the members of the Senate and was written by [Senators Barbara] Boxer and [James] Inhofe. The fact that Boxer and Inhofe were able to write a bill together is one of the least-appreciated stories of this Congress. So, peace breaks out but people say, 'We'd rather continue to have war.' That's unfortunate."

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