House GOP gives ground on legislative agenda to Senate
Shift on transportation bill follows payroll-tax acquiescence
Congress last year was dominated by House Republicans and their agenda, but the legislative initiative appears to be shifting to the Senate this year after Speaker John A. Boehner said this week he is willing to take up a Senate transportation bill rather than have his chamber write its own version.
Bitter partisan debates on spending and deficit-reduction measures typically ended last year with Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, holding his ground and forcing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, into brokered deals that granted House Republicans key concessions.
But House GOP leaders’ grip on the legislative agenda began to slip this winter when they caved to Democratic and White House demands that an extension of the payroll-tax holiday not be paid for with budget spending cuts.
And Mr. Boehner’s decision to turn to the Senate’s multiyear transportation bill after failing to sell his own five-year plan to reluctant House Republicans is another uncomfortable acquiescence to the upper chamber.
“We’re going to continue to have conversations with members about a longer term (House GOP transportation) approach, which frankly most of our members want,” Mr. Boehner said Thursday. “But at this point in time the plan is to bring up the Senate bill, or something like it.”
The speaker downplayed his recent legislative struggles and denied he was losing control of his conference, which includes a large and restless tea partybacked freshmen class.
“This is a very difficult process that we’re in,” Mr. Boehner said. “We’ve got a new majority, we got 89 freshmen. And you know, my job every day is to work with our members to find out where the center of gravity is, and to try to move legislation that’s in the best interest of our country. And we’re going to continue to do that.”
Mr. Reid said Mr. Boehner’s willingness to take up the Senate transportation bill, or one similar, “is pleasing to my ears.”
But Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who is part of Mr. Reid’s leadership team, warned the speaker against bowing to conservatives in his conference who oppose taking up the Senate bill.
“The speaker should remember the lesson of the payroll-tax cut debate and not repeat his mistake,” Mr. Schumer said. “Whenever he lets a small group on the hard right dictate what he should do, he loses and America loses and bipartisanship loses.”
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica’s $260 billion transportation bill — which would fund federal highway, surface transit and transportation safety programs for five years — has divided the House GOP Conference since the Florida Republican released it several weeks ago.
The list of GOP gripes is long and divergent. Some say the proposal is an egregious example of government overspending while others say it cuts too much from sacred projects in their districts. Still others have threatened to withhold support over concerns that many states get back less than 100 percent of the share they pay to the Highway Trust Fund.
This week, Mr. Mica shopped around revisions of the massive 846page bill, which Mr. Boehner asked House Republicans to support during a closed-door meeting Wednesday. But as of Thursday, Mr. Boehner lacked confidence an updated proposal would past muster within his conference, forcing him to look to the Senate for help.
And with Congress facing an endof-march deadline to keep the trust fund operational and with the House on break next week, House Republican leaders have little time to come up with a viable alternative to the Senate bill.
“Our Republican colleagues have been in disarray on the subject of what, how and when a transportation bill will come to the floor. It’s very important that we move forward,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
The Senate’s two-year $109 billion highway bill, in contrast, was drafted with broad bipartisan support. The chamber began voting Thursday on 30 amendments and is expected to pass the full measure next week.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said that conversations would continue in the House about a longer term approach to the nation’s transportation needs. For now, he said he is willing to take up a Senate transportation bill.