By Ben Geman, Russell Berman and Keith Laing in The Hill April 18, 2012
Defying a White House veto threat, the House on Wednesday passed legislation that extends transportation program funding through September and mandates construction of a controversial oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
All but 14 Republicans, with support from 69 Democrats, voted 293-127 for legislation that falls far short of Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) earlier plan to move a sweeping five-year, $260 billion package.
But Boehner’s retreat serves two crucial tactical and political purposes for the Speaker. It sets up talks with the Senate on the highway bill and keeps the Keystone pipeline — a centerpiece of GOP attacks on White House energy policy — front and center ahead of the November election.
Republican leaders hailed the bipartisan vote as a rebuke of President Obama. Two senior Democrat leaders, Reps. James Clyburn (S.C.) and John Larson (Conn.), approved the measure.
“The House is on record again in support of the Keystone XL energy pipeline — a project President Obama blocked, personally lobbied against, then tried to take credit for, and now says he’ll veto,” Boehner said in a statement. “There’s no telling where the president stands from one day to the next on Keystone, but he knows the pipeline has broad and bipartisan support in Congress and among the American people.”
The House and Senate transportation committee chairmen said they hoped conferees would be appointed quickly.
“The purpose of this extension is that we can hopefully bring about resolution and conference legislation to complete our transportation bill,” Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Wednesday.
A number of key Democrats also said they were supporting the plan as a way to get to a House-Senate conference.
“It appears that the House has finally found the path out of dysfunction junction,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We’ve been there too long.”
The bill creates another clash with the White House over the Keystone pipeline — a project at the heart of the Republicans’ energy agenda and their election-year attacks against the president.
Obama, facing divisions in his political base, has delayed a permitting decision on the project until after the election and threatened to veto the House bill over the pipeline language.
The House vote continues what has been a difficult path forward for transportation program funding, which often has bipartisan support.
Congress last month enacted a 90-day extension of highway programs before it left for a two-week recess, and the Speaker had hoped to use the break as one more chance to win support for the five-year transportation bill he has been pushing for months over objections from his conference.
Yet it was clear as lawmakers returned this week that Boehner had not succeeded.
“If I had my druthers, H.R. 7 would have been on the floor six weeks ago. But there weren’t 218 votes to do this,” Boehner told reporters, speaking of the failed five-year package. “You’ve heard me talk about allowing the House to work its will. It’s not about the House working my will. The House ought to be allowed to work its will. And when it came to this bill, the House decided they didn’t want to vote for it.
“So you have to go to Plan B, and Plan B is on the floor today, and I’m hopeful we’ll be in conference soon.”
The Senate last month passed a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill with bipartisan support, but House Republican leaders oppose it because it does not contain their favored reforms for highway programs. Boehner wants to link revenues from expanded domestic energy production to infrastructure spending.
The Speaker’s goal now is to win as many reforms as he can during a conference committee negotiation centered on the Senate measure.
The new strategy caught some Republicans by surprise.
Conservatives on Tuesday had complained that they hadn’t seen the new highway extension, and aides and lawmakers said the leadership was not formally whipping support for it.
Ten Republicans voted against the 90-day extension the House passed before the recess, but a few of those members said Wednesday they were open to the latest extension because of the addition of the Keystone provision and plans to initiate talks with the Senate.
“This extension I’m trying to support because I’ve been told this is our vehicle to move things forward, to get a longer-term bill and to get something in terms of an agreement from both chambers,” Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) told The Hill.
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) cited concerns in the construction industry about the uncertainty of short-term extensions, but said he might support the latest House bill because it could lead to a deal with the Senate.
“I think the whole idea here is to force some sort of compromise, where we get something out of it that we wouldn’t otherwise,” Fleming said.
Still, there was widespread doubt that any long-term highway bill was likely to get done before the November election.
“I don’t see how you get a bill before the election, but stranger things have happened,” said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), a critic of the GOP leadership’s initial transportation proposal. “Maybe lightning will strike and they’ll come up with a conference report.”
LaTourette said he hoped a compromise would be “the Senate bill dressed up.”
Similarly, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that he doesn’t see Congress passing a multiyear bill before the November elections, instead predicting more short-term extensions.
“There will not be a bill before the election,” LaHood said. “I wish I could say we’ll get a transportation bill [in the next six months], but I know we won’t.” He has chastised Republicans for adding what he called unrelated provisions like the pipeline.
Republicans have hammered the White House for failing to approve Keystone, calling it a missed chance to create jobs and boost energy security.
“There is not a more shovel-ready project than the Keystone XL pipeline, period,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said Wednesday.
The project is tricky politics for the White House. Environmentalists bitterly oppose the pipeline due to greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian oil sands and other effects, while a number of major unions back it.
It’s uncertain whether Obama will get a chance to use his veto pen on the final package. The Senate in March turned back an amendment to its transportation bill that would have permitted the pipeline, so the new Keystone provision might not survive the conference negotiations.
But a conference could advance other priorities — including a long-term goal of Gulf Coast lawmakers from both parties.
Both the Senate and House package would steer 80 percent of what are expected to be billions of dollars in Clean Water Act penalties from the BP oil spill to the Gulf Coast for restoration.
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