- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2012

Congress has hinted it’s in danger of once again missing a self-imposed deadline on a critical spending measure, as House and Senate negotiators appear far from reaching a long-term deal to keep federal highway, rail and transit programs funded beyond June.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, on Friday said he was “hopeful” a long-term “highway bill” could be hammered out by the end-month-end deadline. But if not, he suggested House GOP leaders are ready to accept a temporary stop-gap funding measure to ensure federal transportation projects don’t screech to a halt.

“We’re prepared to make sure that there’s no stoppage of transportation programming and funding — all the while desiring a much-longer-term solution,” he said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said she is “hearing rumors” that closed-door negotiations aren’t going well and that another short-term extension may be eminent — a move she said would be “completely inappropriate.”

Punting on the matter, added House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, also would undermine investor and international confidence of the federal government and hurt the U.S. economy.

But Rep. Pete Sessions, Texas Republican, pushed back at Democrats’ accusations that Republicans were obstructing progress on the bill, saying House GOP leaders, including Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, are ready to do what is necessary to ensure a long-term measure is passed.

“The speaker is willing to negotiate,” said Mr. Sessions, who is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising arm of House Republicans.

“We could’ve had a bill out of here perhaps some time ago, we could have not negotiated with the Senate, we could have done a lot of things if we are obstructionists, and we aren’t.”

In March, the Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion highway bill with wide bipartisan support. But the move to renew surface transportation funding stalled in the House, where Republicans rejected their leadership’s five-year, $260 billion version before the measure could even get to the floor for a vote.

Funding for surface transportation projects was to expire at the end of March before Congress passed a three-month extension. Party leaders in both chambers then appointed members to conference committee to work out a compromise bill. But the panel has reported little progress.

A sticking point is a Republican push to include a provision for the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would bring oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast. It has strong support from business and labor groups but is opposed by environmental groups.

Most Democrats are adamant on leaving Keystone out of the measure, saying it’s unrelated. Rather, they are pressing House Republicans to accept a bill based on the Senate measure, which doesn’t include the pipeline.

“The Senate bill is a good bill that will create 2 million jobs. Let’s get on with it,” Mrs. Pelosi said.

But Mr. Sessions said it’s hypocritical for Democrats to demand a transportation “jobs bill” without the Keystone provision because the oil pipeline would create many well-paying jobs.

“Why are certain jobs OK and certain jobs are not?” [Republicans] are not trying to pick and chose,” he said.

But Mr. Sessions denied that Friday’s Labor Department report that showed the unemployment rate increased slightly in May added pressure on Congress to quickly pass a long-term transportation bill, saying he will support such a measure “only if it’s a good bill.”

“The job loss is directly related to the president’s polices that he has placed, and continues to place, on businesses … it’s not related to a transportation bill,” he said.

Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi, an Ohio Republican and a transportation bill conference committee member, also bristled at Democratic pressure to accept the Senate bill.

“Should I just give my voting card to [Ohio Sens.] Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown and say … you guys decide?” Mr. Tiberi said. “How are we obstructing if they won’t negotiate with us?”