Seven Questions as Transportation Bill Conference Gets Underway

The first meeting of the transportation bill conference committee is today at 3:00. (To familiarize yourself with the participants, see Ben’s reports on the House and Senate conferees.) We’ll be live-blogging it, beginning to end.

It’s unusual for conferences to meet in public, and leaders have indicated that this won’t be the only meeting they have in front of television cameras. Still, the sausage-making always happens behind closed doors. Here’s what we’ll be looking for as things get underway today:

Could the transportation bill be Rep. John Mica's downfall? Photo: Roll Call

Will anything come of it? “The first day will tell you exactly nothing,” Scott Slesinger, NRDC’s director of legislative affairs, told reporters last week. “You’ll walk out of there convinced that there’s no way they’re going to do a bill.”

In fact, the conventional wisdom right now is that this whole process will end in yet another extension, probably until the lame-duck session after the November election. But this conference committee could lay the groundwork for that bill. Both parties want to get a bill done, but Republican leaders are worried that their base will revolt at the sight of them negotiating with Democrats. So, in public they’ll be all hard-line rhetoric and uncompromising conservatism, and when the cameras are off they’ll horse-trade.

How strong is the Senate’s hand? The House has pretty limited leverage in this process because they didn’t pass a real transportation bill. The Senate is bringing to conference a bill that got a remarkable vote of confidence from senators across the political spectrum, and “the House sent over a beach ball,” according to NRDC’s David Goldston.

“The House can’t figure out how to get even its own members together so they send these partial things over to the Senate to cause trouble,” said Goldston, “while the Senate has a bill that’s been passed by about three-quarters of the members of the Senate and was written by [Senators Barbara] Boxer and [James] Inhofe. The fact that Boxer and Inhofe were able to write a bill together is one of the least-appreciated stories of this Congress. So, peace breaks out but people say, ‘We’d rather continue to have war.’ That’s unfortunate.”

How significant are the “tweaks” the House is trying to make to the Senate bill? The amendments the House has put forward don’t have much to do with transportation but they sure could hold up this bill. Amendments to eviscerate the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and de-regulate coal ash are controversial, but nothing will stir up as much trouble as the provision to force approval of the Keystone pipeline. The president has already vowed to veto any bill with such a provision, so the House knows that its insistence on this is just another way to kill the transportation reauthorization.

Meanwhile, the differences between the unpassed House proposal and the Senate bill are stark. The Senate breaks the commitment to dedicated bike/ped funding but hands more power over air quality funds to localities (rather than states), meaning more of that money will probably go to bike/ped. The Senate includes more performance measures, including for state of good repair. The House sticks to old formulas. The Senate does enough damage to NEPA by doling out penalties for missed environmental review deadlines, but that’s nothing compared to the House’s position that a missed deadline triggers an automatic approval. The Senate, admittedly, funds its bill with some deficit spending, while the House proceeds with the fiction that its proposal can be paid for with oil drilling.

Technically, none of this is up for consideration in the conference, since it’s not included in the bill the House passed and sent to conference. But House Transportation Chair John Mica has told Politico he’ll push to include as much policy from the original five-year House bill as he can. “You can do anything in conference,” he said.

If this goes to the lame duck, is it even worth it to pass the Senate bill? People refer to the Senate’s legislation as a “two-year” bill because it would have been, if it had been passed last September. But the end date is fixed at September 2013, and isn’t being pushed back along with the start date. So, if it’s passed in December, it’ll only be a 10-month bill.

Still, advocates say the Senate bill includes some worthwhile policy changes that would be an important basis for the next round. Plus, success breeds success in Washington. Proving that you can pass a bill — even a short bill — improves your odds of passing the next one.

Even if you see a 10-month bill as nothing but a glorified extension, at least it’s a 10-month extension — longer than any that we’ve gotten in the (almost) three years since the last bill expired.

Will Senate Republicans stand by their bill? So far, they’ve been pretty quiet. Inhofe and top Banking Committee Republican Richard Shelby both say the Senate has passed a good bill and they plan to defend it. Still, they both support the Keystone pipeline, so it’s unclear how this will shake out.

Given the amount of difficult compromise that happened to get a consensus bill passed in the Senate, it seems everyone there is serious about passing this legislation, meaning they might not go along with the House’s provisions, even if they agree with them, because they know it could sink the whole enterprise. Last summer, when Senate Republicans kept trying to kill bike/ped, Inhofe consistently voted against their attempts because he was committed to using a correct process.

Will House Republicans finally unite behind the conference report? Once all is said and done, if the conference committee does manage to agree on a bill through September 2013, would the House agree to it? After all, conference isn’t the final stage — each chamber still needs to approve the work of the conference committee.

Politico notes that Senate Democrats named some heavyweights to the conference committee while House leadership is taking a backseat. Still, some members speculate that GOP leaders will need to get involved at some point to whip enough support for the bill.

Will Mica and Boehner survive this? While reports of Mica’s demise turned out to be “greatly exaggerated,” experts say the failure to pass a substantive bill will almost certainly cost him his committee chairmanship — if he’s even re-elected to Congress. And Mica might not be the only casualty of the transportation bill debacle. House Speaker John Boehner’s lieutenant, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, is rumored to be planning a coup d’etat. While the two have tried to make nice in public of late, the tension between the two of them has led to a less united party than usual. Cantor could use Boehner’s failures to get the transportation bill through his own party as a reason to topple him.