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Barbara Boxer

Clues Hint at Souring Negotiations in Transpo Bill Conference

4:42 PM EDT on May 31, 2012

Politico Pro Transportation put out a news blast today that threw some light into the inky shadows of the conference committee process, and what we saw there doesn't look too pretty. Apparently Sen. Barbara Boxer has reason to believe negotiations aren't going so well, "after a House GOP conferee criticized her for 'stonewalling' the lower chamber":

“We are at a crossroads — the House GOP seems to be moving away from the bill,” she said, according to a source on a conference call she held with industry officials. Boxer noted that “something has happened” recently — things had been going well but she now feels that House leaders aren’t making the bill a priority. “The problem is the leadership over there,” she said.

Before I go any further, it's worth noting that when the transportation bill was being debated on the Senate floor, Streetsblog (and others) picked up on some pessimistic-sounding comments from Boxer, but she quickly set the record straight and proved us all wrong with a successful 74-22 vote.

This time could be different though. Today This week the House will vote on (and likely pass along party lines) another motion to instruct the conferees, a non-binding resolution that expresses the desires of the full House -- or, more accurately, of House leadership. Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor have done their own fair share of stonewalling in this reauthorization cycle, refusing to bring the Senate bill to the floor for an up-and-down vote despite repeatedly failing to bring forth an alternative. A vote on the conference committee's transportation bill doesn't even appear yet on the Majority Leader's schedule, which runs all the way through the August recess (more than a month after the June 30 deadline to pass a new bill).

This particular motion, sponsored by Georgia Republican Paul Broun (rhymes with "down"), instructs conferees that transportation spending should not exceed the balance of the Highway Trust Fund.

As a matter of policy, it's a moot point -- by definition, federal surface transportation spending can never surpass HTF balances, though the HTF has been repeatedly topped off from general taxes. Rather, it's a politically-motivated attack on the Senate bill, which shores up the HTF for the 15-month life of the bill with offsets that will take ten years to fully materialize.

In other words, Broun's motion is urging House members not to support the Senate bill.

And the Senate bill is really the only bill, since the House went to conference with only a 90-day extension and a small pile of poison pills. (Ironically, a longer extension is by far the best way to deplete the Highway Trust Fund even faster.)

Joshua Schank, President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, also sees the Broun motion as a bad sign.

"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," 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."

One advocate, speaking to Streetsblog for a previous story, surmised that the Republicans win whether or not a bill gets passed. Pass a bill, and take credit for a job-creating initiative (and grab as many concessions from Dems as possible). Don't pass a bill, and blame the Democrats for stonewalling.

Either way, a new transportation bill by June 30 is looking less and less likely, eating away the value of the Senate bill. Another extension, the tenth since 2009, is a near certainty.

"The length of the extension depends on how things are going in conference," says Schank. "If they are close, then they'll pass a short-term extension and sort it out in July. If they're not close, they'll probably throw in the towel and pass an extension through the lame duck period."

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