After struggling for weeks to write a transportation bill, House Speaker John A. Boehner has set up a showdown vote Thursday on a stopgap measure to keep federal highway and transit programs running beyond this weekend.
The move - which comes after three days of last-minute efforts at a deal - is far from a sure thing. Democrats oppose the Ohio Republican's proposed 90-day funding extension, and dissension within his party's ranks could cause problems for Mr. Boehner.
But with funding for federal transportation projects set to expire Sunday unless Congress acts, the speaker is hoping enough Democrats support the bill to push it over the finish line.
"It remains Democrats' choice as to whether to work in a bipartisan fashion or to play political games with our country's economy," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
But Mr. Boehner finds himself in unfamiliar territory.
Last year, his first as speaker, the House usually was the chamber that passed a bill and sent it to the Senate, where Democrats struggled to match it with their own alternative.
This time, the Senate has passed a two-year, $109 billion transportation plan on a strong bipartisan vote. Meanwhile, House Republicans have been unable to wrangle the votes for an alternative, damaging their negotiating position.
That's given Democrats ammunition to blame Mr. Boehner should a deal fall through and highway projects screech to a halt.
"Once again, we're facing the specter of an unnecessary shutdown because of the intransigence of the House GOP caucus," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. "Speaker Boehner has once again been painted in a corner by the tea-party wing of his caucus, which is committed to blocking a responsible highway bill."
Mr. Boehner's party colleagues earlier this year rejected his proposed five-year, $260 billion transportation bill even before he could bring it to the floor for a vote. Some Republicans said the measure - drafted by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica, Florida Republican - was too big and expensive. Others complained it cut too much from favored projects in their districts.
Mr. Boehner then suggested he would accept the Senate's version. He later backed off after conservatives in his ranks balked at the prospect of endorsing legislation from the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The speaker then floated a proposed 90-day funding extension on Monday but withdrew it amid objections from Democrats, who are pushing for a long-term deal. A 60-day extension proposal met a similar fate on Tuesday.
Democrats are leery of agreeing to a temporary deal because it would buy House Republican leaders time to take another crack at drafting their own long-term deal.
Republicans say Democrats have reneged on an earlier promise to accept a 90-day deal. "Democrats moved the goalposts," Mr. Steel said.
But with no time left to draft a new long-term transportation bill before funding expires, Mr. Boehner is faced with two unpalatable options should his 90-day proposal fail; accepting the Senate plan or let highway funding expire.
Bringing the Senate bill to the House floor risks a revolt from his conservative tea-party faction, and it would pass only with the support of Democrats - resulting in a political victory for Democrats.
Doing nothing would halt highway and transit construction projects nationwide - a move that would adversely affect 3 million jobs, Democrats say.
Senate Democrats hit Mr. Boehner hard Wednesday for his refusal to take up the Senate bill, introducing a "countdown clock" to highlight the consequences of failing to renew transportation funding.
"We are moving toward a very dangerous moment here," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat who co-wrote the Senate transportation bill with Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican. "I say to Speaker Boehner, you're the speaker of the House, not the speaker of the Republicans. Reach out to all your colleagues."
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