A Vow to ‘Bring Republicans to the Table’ for a New Transport Bill

Despite Senate Democratic efforts to move quickly on a new jobs bill that includes infrastructure investment and takes steps towards solving the nation's transportation financing dilemma, Congress has just two more weeks of work until time runs out on the latest short-term extension of the five-year-old law governing federal transport policy.

large_steve_latourette.jpg"We will bring Republicans to the table," Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-OH) said last week. (Photo: Cleveland.com)

Republicans in the House mounted a surprisingly vocal opposition to the first short-term extension in September, suggesting more resistance to come when Democrats in both chambers attempt to agree -- sometime before February 28 -- on legislation giving another planning reprieve to local transportation officials.

Even calls for a new extension by the road and business lobbies, reliable campaign donors to Democrats and Republicans alike, have fallen on deaf ears as lawmakers brace for a midterm election season dominated by anti-incumbent sentiment. Politico noted today that the GOP is preparing to oppose a $20 billion-plus infusion of taxpayer money to the highway trust fund, citing "concern about rising deficits."

That politically motivated foot-dragging is in some ways a nod to the extent and complexity of Washington's transportation financing problem. Rescuing the highway trust fund again may be a bitter pill to swallow, but with congressional leaders unwilling to look at a gas tax increase -- and no certainty that such a hike would even get the job done as Americans drive less in more fuel-efficient cars -- lawmakers have little to lose by extending the highway-centric 2005 transportation bill again this month, effectively hitting the snooze button on infrastructure policy.

Still, not every Republican is opposed to making the hard choices necessary to raise revenue for a new transportation bill. That was the message that Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-OH) delivered to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood during a recent House Appropriations Committee hearing. As LaTourette told his former GOP colleague (emphasis mine):

[E]ven though I have the greatest respect for you and the president ... kicking this can down the road to March 2011 is irresponsible. This has to be worked out. This isn't a problem that you're all of a sudden some light bulb's going to go on after listening for 18 months. We knew it when we passed [the 2005 federal transport law], we knew we were going to have this problem [with financing].

And I'm telling you, as I told Mr. Oberstar, we will bring Republicans to the table. I get that the Democrats are scared because of some of the election results, they don't want to have a tax increase on top of the other things that are going on around here. But the fact of the matter is, it's time for leadership on this issue, and it is irresponsible, in my opinion, to not deal with this.

LaTourette added that LaHood may be under pressure of his own not to put the White House on record in favor of a new tax increase -- even one that might help break the transportation financing logjam. "Early in your tenure," LaTourette told LaHood, "[you] made some observations about [the prospects for a] vehicle miles traveled [tax]. I got the feeling you were summoned down to the White House pretty quickly after that, and you stopped talking about things like that. But it's got to be done."

Could LaTourette's confidence translate into GOP support for new taxes to help pay for the next long-term transportation bill? A tax increase of some kind is likely the only chance Congress will have to close the $140 billion-plus gap between estimated gas tax revenues and the six-year legislation envisioned by the House transportation committee.

But Republicans won't have to consider coming "to the table," in LaTourette's words, if Democrats stay silent on the issue before the midterm elections. And LaHood's preferred extension timetable of spring 2011 still may be too early for gun-shy lawmakers to sit down and solve the government's transportation funding problem.

"March of 2011 will be a new Congress," Rep. Tom Latham (IA), the senior Republican among House transportation appropriators, told LaHood . "Lord knows what's going to happen. That really kicks it, probably, another year down the road."