Bi-Partisan Transpo. Team in House Ready to Take on Obama, LaHood

Senior members of the House transportation committee today fired a warning shot at those pushing an 18-month extension of existing federal law, putting the Obama administration and key senators on notice that their $450 billion proposal would move forward this year.

374706082_7380904145.jpgHow often does this man hold a shovel? (Photo: World Economic Forum via flickr)

Rep.
Jim Oberstar (D-MN), the transportation panel’s chairman, described a
delay in long-term funding as a risk to jobs and growth opportunities
that were created by the recent stimulus law.

And Oberstar made no attempt to hide his disdain for
the Obama economic advisers who helped trim transit’s share of that
stimulus plan. Holding up a red shovel for a phalanx of photographers,
Oberstar quipped: "There are folks in the economic gang at the White
House who never had a shovel in their hands or a callus on their
fingers."

His GOP counterpart on the committee, Rep. John
Mica (FL), vowed to join Oberstar in amassing House support for a
transporation bill that could clear the lower chamber of Congress by
the end of September — though even their allies concede that Senate
passage is a long shot.

"I view this as the most critical
jobs bill before Congress … we’re going to do it together, one way or
another, come hell or high water," Mica said, adding flourish as he
advised critics not to "underestimate Oberstar and Mica."

Several
advocacy and interest groups are joining the committee’s effort to push
a six-year transportation bill across the finish line. The Laborers’
International Union of North America released a statement that plainly
said, "We agree with Chairman Oberstar that the surface transportation
bill should not be delayed."

The American Public
Transportation Association (APTA), which represents the nation’s
transit agencies, also lent its voice in support. "Our members need
this bill to pass as soon as it possibly can," APTA President William
Millar told Streetsblog.

Yet the key for Oberstar and Mica
may be how many senators endorse their call for a long-term
transportation re-write this year. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood already has admitted
that the "reform" he called for as part of his 18-month extension would
have a slim chance of passing, given the contentious debate that’s
likely to erupt simply over averting bankruptcy for the nation’s
highway trust fund.

"I believe
we can have discussions," LaHood told Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA),
chairwoman of the panel with jurisdiction over DOT spending, earlier
this morning. "Whether we get to the point where we
can include these as part of the fix of the the Highway Trust Fund,
we’ll have to see."

Rep.
Pete DeFazio (D-OR), chairman of Oberstar’s subcommittee on highways
and transit, told Streetsblog that he hopes senators will "have second
thoughts" about the administration’s 18-month extension. "When we met
with the Senate, we agreed to their principles. We told them we’d give
them a product," he said.

Before the assembled media,
DeFazio was cutting in his criticism of the White House’s
transportation strategy. "The Obama administration has lifted a play
out of the Bush White House book," he said, predicting that the
extensions would last longer than LaHood’s proposed 18 months.

"Now
the administration of change has come and said, ‘We think the status
quo is just fine’ … it’s at least two years, more likely three or
four," DeFazio said.

The House Ways and Means Committee will
have a joint hearing next week on funding sources for Oberstar’s bill,
and DeFazio’s subcommittee plans to hold a markp Wednesday.

What
remains to be seen is whether senators will join the push — and
whether advocates will give full-throated support to the House members
in their clash with the administration.

When a reporter described as "not much," the new bill’s minor shift in the long-standing 80-20 funding distribution between highways and transit, a Democratic committee source conceded the point.