Boxer: Forget Transportation Bill, Work with Me on Something Else

6_25_09_boxer.jpg"Defender of the Environment" Boxer doesn’t want reforms or debate over gas tax increases to hold up transportation bill; but does favor an eighteen month delay. Photo: SteveRhodes/Flickr

Green transportation advocates are pressing Congress
to refuse any new spending that’s not tied to reform of the existing
system — a call that influential senators in both parties ruled out
today.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman
Barbara Boxer (D-CA) joined Sen. Jim Inhofe (OK), the panel’s ranking
GOPer, in endorsing another 18 months of the 2005 transportation bill.

The
extension, Boxer said, should be "clean as it can be, clean as a
whistle … not with these policy changes, because it will in fact
jeopardize a quick passage of this extension."

Boxer’s
agreement to an extension free of policy reforms appears to be an
acknowledgment that Inhofe and most other GOP senators would slow down
approval of the short-term transportation measure. But she faced a lone
critic today in Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), who challenged Boxer to
back down from her opposition to raising the federal gas tax during an
economic recession.

"I will tell you that if you go out to the people of America
and say [a gas tax hike] is the solution, they’re not going to buy it,"
Boxer said.

Voinovich
reminded the Californian that she "is always talking about the
environment; [drafting a new transportation bill] is going to have a
huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions." He suggested that senators
"look at" the House transportation bill
offered by Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and pitch the American public on an
increase in the gas tax, which has remained static since 1993.

In fact, recent polling supports
Voinovich’s argument, not Boxer’s. A survey released earlier this year
by the advocacy group Building America’s Future found that 81 percent
of Americans would pay more in federal taxes to support infrastructure
investments.

But the alignment of Boxer and Inhofe, as well
as Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) — whose Finance Committee must agree on a
revenue source for the next transportation bill — in favor of a clean
18-month extension is enough to doom the House effort to pass a bill
this year.

Boxer described the process as a "two-track
effort," promising to work on a "transformational" long-term
transportation bill during the 18-month extension period of the
existing law.

Given Congress’ full plate and Boxer’s focus
on climate change legislation, however, the chances of passing a
broader six-year transportation bill before 2011 look slim right now.

Late Update:
Boxer closed the hearing by asserting that the lack of a revenue source
for a new transportation bill, not the crowded congressional calendar,
is driving her support for a "clean" 18-month extension.

"For
those who want to focus on transformation, I urge them to work with me
on my global warming bill," which will have a transportation portion,
she said.

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