Lawmakers Cross Party Lines on Transpo Funding as Debate Rages

An 18-month extension of existing transportation law cleared the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee today, but not before spirited debate on a proposal billed as a compromise with House members who remain strongly opposed to the Senate's stopgap.

Sen_Barbara_Boxer_D_CA_1.jpgBarbara Boxer (D-CA), chairman of theSenate environment committee (Photo: Politics Now)
The "clean" re-upping of the 2005 transport law, stripped of the few reforms the Obama administration had proposed, passed with one dissenting vote: Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), who lost a bid -- on his birthday -- to cut the extension down to 12 months.

"Everyone realizes the current law is inadequate to get the job done," said Voinovich, who has aligned with Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and his House transportation committee to fight the White House and Senate on the extension.

"We have a Senate and we have a House ... what I'm proposing here is something very reasonable."

Voinovich's compromise won support from three Democrats, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (MT), whose panel has the tricky task of approving $20 billion in spending cuts or offsets to keep the nation's highway trust fund flush until after the 2010 midterm elections.

But the 12-month proposal fell on an 8-11 vote, with environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) offering Voinovich a contrite birthday consolation and a promise to tackle a "transformational" transportation bill -- once the thorny question of revenue is sorted out.

"There is way less of a chance that, if we go 18 months, we'll have to do another extension," Boxer said. Though "I respect, like, love" Oberstar, the chairman added, "in order to meet his six-year bill, you'd have to double the gas tax."

Boxer has said she is open to indexing the gas tax, which has gone untouched by Washington since 1993, to inflation. Any increases, however, face an uphill battle winning over re-election-minded lawmakers.

The 18-month extension must be merged with corresponding legislation from the Senate Commerce and Banking Committees before heading to the Finance panel for its revenue portion to be completed.

Yet the bill appears set to founder in the House, given Oberstar's fierce opposition, leaving Congress without a clear path on transportation policy and only three weeks to go to meet the U.S. DOT's deadline for bailing out the highway trust fund.