Lawmakers Cross Party Lines on Transpo Funding as Debate Rages

An 18-month extension of existing transportation law cleared the
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee today, but not before
spirited debate on a proposal billed as a compromise with House members
who remain strongly opposed to the Senate’s stopgap.

Sen_Barbara_Boxer_D_CA_1.jpgBarbara Boxer (D-CA), chairman of theSenate environment committee (Photo: Politics Now)

The "clean" re-upping of the 2005 transport law, stripped of the few reforms
the Obama administration had proposed, passed with one dissenting vote:
Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), who lost a bid — on his birthday — to
cut the extension down to 12 months.

"Everyone realizes the current law is inadequate to get the job done," said Voinovich, who has aligned with Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and his House transportation committee to fight the White House and Senate on the extension.

"We have a Senate and we have a House … what I’m proposing here is something very reasonable."

Voinovich’s
compromise won support from three Democrats, including Senate Finance
Committee Chairman Max Baucus (MN), whose panel has the tricky task of
approving $20 billion in spending cuts or offsets to keep the nation’s
highway trust fund flush until after the 2010 midterm elections.

But
the 12-month proposal fell on an 8-11 vote, with environment committee
chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) offering Voinovich a contrite birthday
consolation and a promise to tackle a "transformational" transportation
bill — once the thorny question of revenue is sorted out.

"There
is way less of a chance that, if we go 18 months, we’ll have to do
another extension," Boxer said. Though "I respect, like, love"
Oberstar, the chairman added, "in order to meet his six-year bill,
you’d have to double the gas tax."

Boxer has said she is
open to indexing the gas tax, which has gone untouched by Washington
since 1993, to inflation. Any increases, however, face an uphill battle
winning over re-election-minded lawmakers.

The
18-month extension must be merged with corresponding legislation from
the Senate Commerce and Banking Committees before heading to the
Finance panel for its revenue portion to be completed.

Yet
the bill appears set to founder in the House, given Oberstar’s fierce
opposition, leaving Congress without a clear path on transportation
policy and only three weeks to go to meet the U.S. DOT’s deadline for
bailing out the highway trust fund.