House Republican leaders have spurned Democrats' entreaties to approve a Senate-passed two-year highway-transit bill and decided instead to pursue another short extension for surface-transportation programs.
If the two sides cannot agree, it raises the prospect of halting new highway and transit grants and stopping federal gasoline-tax collections on March 31, when the current stopgap authorization expires.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said he planned to introduce a three-month highway-transit stopgap on March 22. If enacted, it would be the ninth such extension since Sept. 30, 2009, when the last multi-year surface-transportation bill lapsed. Mica's planned new stopgap would expire June 30.
Mica's announcement hit my inbox about a hour after Senate Democrats and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held a press conference in the U.S. Capitol to urge House Republicans to pass the two-year $109-billion transportation bill that the Senate had approved a week earlier.
Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the Senate bill's sponsor, said, "Make no mistake about it, this is the 'jobs bill'."
The Democrats and LaHood noted that the Senate bill was approved on a strong bipartisan, 74-22 vote and made clear that they don't like the idea of another stopgap. LaHood said, "If the House were to pass an extension, it would be a death knell for states really getting people back to work quickly on projects that need to be done."
Reporters pressed the senators and LaHood about whether they would go along with a short extension and avoid shutting the highway and transit programs down when the March 31 extension expires. I didn't hear them give a categorical yes or no, but they left no doubt about their opposition to a stopgap.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said extensions would deplete the Highway Trust Fund's balance. He said, "Every time we've extended [transportation programs] the trust fund gets lower and lower and will be gone by...the end of the year."
Schumer added, "So we think extensions are a very bad idea. That's how we're leaving it now. We think it's a very bad idea and urge the House not to do an extension because it's a death of a thousand cuts" for the highway fund.