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2009 Transportation Bill

What Voinovich Wants From the White House: A New Politics for Transport

Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), a longtime supporter of quick action on a new federal transportation bill, helped give Democrats a major victory this week when he voted for the Senate's jobs measure after securing a promise for transportation votes in the upper chamber this year. George Voinovich (R-OH) (Photo: CNN)

But viewing Voinovich's move on the jobs bill as a template for breaking the partisan logjam that has paralyzed the Senate would be highly premature -- as the Ohioan explained today.

"I'm taking each of these pieces of legislation and looking at them individually," Voinovich said at an event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center. If the White House does not come to the table with specific plan for the next federal transport law, he added, "I may vote against anything" more that comes down the pike on jobs.

Voinovich said he has told President Obama as much personally.

What he wants to hear from the White House is not limited to the substance of a new federal infrastructure plan: "I'd like to hear Ray LaHood say, 'We're going to support [a new bill] and we're willing to look at various sources of revenue to pay for it," starting with an increase in the gas tax.

Though he plans to retire at the end of 2010, Voinovich is one of a handful of Republicans considered open to working with Democrats and resisting partisan pressures to oppose most of the majority's agenda. His extraction of a promise to legislate on transportation this year from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) -- whom Voinovich says "gets it" and "supports funding" a new bill -- suggests that the White House could gain a reliable GOP ally by diving into the debate this year.

Yet neither Voinovich nor Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) held out much hope that Washington's widespread political resistance to paying for transportation reform would ease in the short term.

"You need both Congress and the executive branch" to throw their weight behind the issue, Carper said, comparing Obama to George W. Bush in terms of their intractable opposition to raising the gas tax.

Despite the conservative appeal of saying "we're going to improve infrastructure, restrict our carbon footprint, and pay for it," Voinovich said later, lawmakers on both sides are more "worried about how many seats they'll have" after the 2010 midterm elections.

With the White House postponing the consideration of "tough choices" on transportation, as Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) put it yesterday, and the House and Senate wracked by disputes over even the small-scale question of how to extend the road-centric transport law, prospects for agreement appear as bleak as ever.

"No member of Congress can see a solution they can accept, so they say, 'We can't talk about policy because we can't deal with the money yet,'" Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said today at a separate IBM forum on Capitol Hill.

There is, however, a potential silver lining of the current lean period for transportation. The 10 months that remain before the promised Senate vote on the issue gives Carper, Voinovich, and their House-side allies time to hash out a framework for long-term legislation that has a chance of leapfrogging the capital's typical gridlock.

Illustrating that sentiment, Voinovich turned to Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) during a break in the action today and suggested that infrastructure-minded lawmakers get to work immediately: "Not to be naive," he said, "but we need to start pre-conferencing the [future transportation] bill right now."

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