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2009 Transportation Bill

Voinovich Joins House Dems in Saying No to Transpo Funding Stopgap

5:40 PM EDT on July 14, 2009

Voinovich_to_bow_out_at_end_of_term.jpgSen. George Voinovich (R-OH) allied with House Democrats today. (Photo: UPI)

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will move tomorrow on a White House-backed extension of the four-year-old federal transportation law, but at least one of its members is already opposed.

George Voinovich (R-OH) linked arms with House Democratic leaders on the transportation panel this morning to continue lashing the Obama administration for "blowing this golden opportunity," as the senator put it, to pass new transportation legislation this year.

"There is no need to talk extension of time," House transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) told reporters.

"This is an
administration that came in promising change. Instead, they're talking
the same old thing."

Oberstar also pushed back at the charge made by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that Congress must plug a hole in the nation's highway trust fund before leaving for a month-long August recess.

The trust fund can stay intact, he asserted, until the end of September, when the 2005 federal transport law is now set to expire.

Hours after Oberstar spoke, however, LaHood reiterated that congressional inaction on the trust fund this month would be "completely unfair" to states. The Senate environment panel's chairman, Barbara Boxer (D-CA), concurred that the trust fund's financial state risks undercutting broader transportation reform.

"We  really have an issue on our hands that we can't resolve under the threat of the trust fund going broke," Boxer said today at a transportation hearing in her committee.

Ultimately, Voinovich's alliance is unlikely to change the game of political chicken that developed last month -- with the Senate accepting the White House's plans for an 18-month extension and the House insisting that its six-year, $500 billion transportation measure should go forward without an agreed-upon revenue source.

Yet there is the potential for two heavyweights to intercede and help end the impasse: the business lobby and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Business interests, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have launched a group called Americans for Transportation Mobility to push for quick enactment of a new transportation bill. With high-profile Capitol Hill media placement and a lobbying fly-in tomorrow, the Chamber could use its political muscle to move more support to Oberstar's side.

Pelosi, meanwhile, suggested on Thursday that she's already backing her transportation committee chief. And Oberstar reiterated that today, telling reporters that "we have the support of House leadership" in fighting the Obama administration's plans.

Another X factor in the transportation debate as the August recess approaches is where the White House plans to find $20 billion for its proposed extension. When pressed on the matter today, LaHood said the Office of Management and Budget is "working on that right now."

No matter what, tomorrow's Senate debate on the extension won't be the last word. The Senate Finance Committee is required to sign off on a funding source for the trust fund rescue before it can pass the upper chamber of Congress.

Late Update: Roll Call reports this afternoon that Boxer, even as she takes up an 18-month extension, is hedging her bets by asking fellow senators to submit earmark requests for local projects that might be included in a long-term transportation bill.

In a letter to staffers obtained by the newspaper, Boxer's office stated, “We anticipate a clean extension [but would] like to be
prepared for all possibilities. With that in mind, Senator Boxer wants
to know your boss’ top priority projects.”

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