House Transpo Leaders United — in Frustration With the White House

Senior members of the House transportation committee today fired a warning shot at those pushing an 18-month extension of existing federal law, putting the Obama administration and key senators on notice that their $450 billion proposal would move forward this year.

374706082_7380904145.jpgHow often does this man hold a shovel? (Photo: World Economic Forum via flickr)

Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), the transportation panel's chairman, described a delay in long-term funding as a risk to jobs and growth opportunities that were created by the recent stimulus law.

And Oberstar made no attempt to hide his disdain for the Obama economic advisers who helped trim transit's share of that stimulus plan. Holding up a red shovel for a phalanx of photographers, Oberstar quipped: "There are folks in the economic gang at the White House who never had a shovel in their hands or a callus on their fingers."

His GOP counterpart on the committee, Rep. John Mica (FL), vowed to join Oberstar in amassing House support for a transportation bill that could clear the lower chamber of Congress by the end of September -- though even their allies concede that Senate passage is a long shot.

"I view this as the most critical jobs bill before Congress ... we're going to do it together, one way or another, come hell or high water," Mica said, adding flourish as he advised critics not to "underestimate Oberstar and Mica."

Several advocacy and interest groups are joining the committee's effort to push a six-year transportation bill across the finish line. The Laborers' International Union of North America released a statement that plainly said, "We agree with Chairman Oberstar that the surface transportation bill should not be delayed."

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which represents the nation's transit agencies, also lent its voice in support. "Our members need this bill to pass as soon as it possibly can," APTA President William Millar told Streetsblog.

Yet the key for Oberstar and Mica may be how many senators endorse their call for a long-term transportation re-write this year. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood already has admitted that the "reform" he called for as part of his 18-month extension would have a slim chance of passing, given the contentious debate that's likely to erupt simply over averting bankruptcy for the nation's highway trust fund.

"I believe we can have discussions," LaHood told Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), chairwoman of the panel with jurisdiction over DOT spending, earlier this morning. "Whether we get to the point where we can include these as part of the fix of the the Highway Trust Fund, we'll have to see."

Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR), chairman of Oberstar's subcommittee on highways and transit, told Streetsblog that he hopes senators will "have second thoughts" about the administration's 18-month extension. "When we met with the Senate, we agreed to their principles. We told them we'd give them a product," he said.

Before the assembled media, DeFazio was cutting in his criticism of the White House's transportation strategy. "The Obama administration has lifted a play out of the Bush White House book," he said, predicting that the extensions would last longer than LaHood's proposed 18 months.

"Now the administration of change has come and said, 'We think the status quo is just fine' ... it's at least two years, more likely three or four," DeFazio said.

The House Ways and Means Committee will have a joint hearing next week on funding sources for Oberstar's bill, and DeFazio's subcommittee plans to hold a markup Wednesday.

What remains to be seen is whether senators will join the push -- and whether advocates will give full-throated support to the House members in their clash with the administration.

When a reporter described as "not much," the new bill's minor shift in the long-standing 80-20 funding distribution between highways and transit, a Democratic committee source conceded the point.