- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2012

House and Senate negotiators met Tuesday for the first time to hammer out a massive new long-term spending bill to keep federal highway, rail and transit programs running.

The Senate in March 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.

“We must rebuild our nation,” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We cannot let our hard heads get in the way of hard hats.”

The bipartisan highway bill conference committee, which includes 14 senators and 33 House members, faces an end-of-June deadline, when a temporary three-month spending extension expires.

Without a new bill, many federally funded transportation construction and infrastructure projects would halt, a move that would adversely affect an estimated 1.8 million construction-related jobs. The government could also lose about $110 million a day in uncollected gas and diesel taxes.

Surface transportation spending bills typically are among the most nonpartisan in Congress, as Democrats and Republicans alike pack them with pet spending projects for their home districts and states. But the highly charged partisan nature that increasingly has gripped Capitol Hill has seeped into deliberations on this year’s version.

A key 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 leading environmental groups.

“Approving the Keystone pipeline is an opportunity to address high gasoline prices, put Americans to work and reduce America’s dependence on unfriendly Middle East oil,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, Washington Republican. “While the president has repeatedly refused to act, Congress must.”

Most Democrats in both chambers are adamant on leaving Keystone out of the measure, saying it’s unrelated. Rather, they are pushing for a comprise based on the Senate bill, which doesn’t include the controversial pipeline.

“Failure is not an option for us, not when 70,000 of our bridges are deficient, not when 50 percent of our roads are below standard, and not when construction businesses and workers are suffering,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, who was named chairman of the conference committee and who co-wrote the Senate bill.

But House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica, Florida Republican and conference committee co-chairman, warned against raising taxes to pay for upgrading the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

“We’ve got to do more with less,” he said. “If you want to pay for it with [increased] taxes, you’re on the wrong committee.”

The public meeting was reserved for members’ opening statements, with the real negotiations expected to take place behind closed doors in the coming weeks. But Mrs. Boxer, who said she may call another public meeting in “20-some days,” said she was pleased with the nonconfrontational tone of the panel’s initial gathering.

“I heard no lines in the sand,” said the senator, who then added, “I’m going to do everything to complete the Senate bill.”

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