Conservative Motion to Cut Transportation Spending Fails (and Fails Hard)

The House has just defeated, in a 323 to 82 whopper, a motion to instruct members of the transportation bill conference committee to slash spending by nearly 30 percent in order to stay within the projected limits of the Highway Trust Fund.

The motion, sponsored by Georgia Republican Paul Broun, had acheived “key vote” status from conservative groups FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation, and got a stamp of approval from the right-wing bloggers at RedState for good measure. Its failure represents a glimmer of hope that the Tea Party has not completely hijacked the transportation reauthorization process from the conference committee. It also hints at how the Senate’s transportation bill could have fared in the House, had it only been brought to a vote. And, like so many storylines of the last two years, it reflects the deep divisions remaining in the Republican caucus.

To refresh your memory, here’s what we wrote about Broun’s motion a week ago, when it was first introduced:

“By bringing Broun’s motion to a vote, they’re they’re putting to a vote the biggest issue in conference before the conference even has a chance to issue a report,” [Eno Center for Transportation President Joshua] Schank told Streetsblog. “Making all the House Republicans go on the record whether they’re in favor of deficit spending… indicates a lack of seriousness about trying to get a bill done.”

“They were inevitably going to come to a head over this issue,” Schank continued, explaining that House leadership’s only chance was to appoint Tea Party conferees in the hopes that they could sell the rest of their caucus on transportation spending. “All hopes of that happening seem to be dashed, because this vote makes it very hard to make that sale.”

As with all other motions to instruct conferees, this one would have been entirely non-binding. However, it put the House on the record about one of the most controversial aspects of the Senate’s proposed two-year 18-month 15-month transportation bill, potentially forcing an already precarious and contentious process into a delicate situation.

Now that the votes have been tallied, the Tea Partyers have their opposition on the record, and the motion is dispensed with, is this a sign that House Republicans are willing to play ball? It may very well be, but it’s also a sign that divisions between the various camps within the Republican party remain as deep as ever. As Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio said during general debate after the vote, “The Republican caucus is having an internal war. Eighty-two people say the federal government shouldn’t be involved in infrastructure… That’s crazy!”

Furthermore, while it’s true that the 82 Republicans who supported the motion represent a minority of the GOP delegation, that is little comfort when it has often seemed that House leadership would not bring any bill to a general vote unless they were confident it would pass with 218 Republican votes.

The lesson here is that more Democrats and Republicans agree on more of the transportation bill than they’re leading us to believe. If the House GOP leadership had been willing to engage in a little coalition building, we’d probably have a bill passed months ago.