- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Top House and Senate leaders apparently came up short Tuesday on a last-ditch effort to revive stalled legislation to overhaul federal transportation programs — Congress’ best bet for passage of a major jobs bill this year with prospects for passage now exceedingly dim before the November election.

Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could not come to an agreement in a late-afternoon meeting over the massive bill to fund roads, bridges and rail project that many of both parties say is needed in the face of a sluggish economy.

“Hope springs eternal,” Mr. Boehner said as he left his office in the Capitol.

Mr. Reid, Mr. Boehner and two key lawmakers, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, Florida Republican, were trying to reach an agreement on how to handle a collection of sensitive policy and financing matters still in dispute.

A 47-member House-Senate committee has been holding negotiations on the bill for more than a month, but they have been unable to reach agreement on a host of difficult issues, lawmakers involved in the process and their staffs said.

Time is running extremely short. Authority to spend money from the Highway Trust Fund the main source of federal transportation aid to states expires June 30. As a practical matter, congressional leaders were facing a Wednesday deadline on whether to continue to try to pass a comprehensive bill, or whether seek a temporary extension of transportation programs. There are only about a half-dozen days left in the month in which Congress is scheduled to be in session, and it takes time to prepare an extension bill and pass it.

Mr. Boehner has already signaled that if there is to be an extension, it should be at least six months long. That would push off the question of how to shore up the trust fund which is forecast to go broke sometime next year until after the election. Highway and transit programs have limped along under a series of nine extensions since the last long-term transportation bill expired in 2009.

The Senate passed a bipartisan, $109 billion transportation bill earlier this year that would consolidate current programs, give states more flexibility on how they spend federal aid and streamline environmental regulations to speed up completion of highway projects.

House Republicans also crafted a comprehensive bill, but were unable to pass the measure. There are deep divisions within the GOP caucus about whether transportation programs should be forced to live entirely with the revenue generated by federal gas taxes and other user fees, even if it means cutting programs by more than a third.

Senate Democrats have blamed intransigence by House Republicans for the stalemate in negotiations. Mr. Reid has suggested that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, is trying to delay the transportation bill in order to sabotage the economy.

Road-building and other industries dependent on highway programs have also identified House Republicans as the main obstacle to passage of a bill. A coalition of industry groups launched radio ads last week in the congressional districts of four House negotiators.

GOP lawmakers have been working hard on the transportation bill, but they are insisting on reforms to prevent money from being misspent that Senate Democrats have so far resisted, Mr. Boehner told reporters Tuesday morning.

“I’m going to stress to Sen. Reid and Sen. Boxer that we want a bill,” Mr. Boehner said, “but we are also going to insist on reforms of the process by which we spend the highway tax dollars that American motorists give us to rebuild America’s highways.”

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