Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate began their formal conference over surface transportation funding Tuesday, in a negotiation that could take up to a month and where tens of billions of dollars are at stake.
Lawmakers from both sides of the Capitol gathered in one of the Hill's largest hearings rooms to begin hashing out an agreement between the chambers. On the table: A two-year Senate bill worth $109 billion backed by a broad bipartisan vote, versus House demands to cut spending, reform federal projects, cut regulations and force approval of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.
The extension governing highway funding expires June 30. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) the champion of the Senate bill and the conference committee chair, told lawmakers they'll need to reach agreement by early June in order to get an agreement written and passed in time.
It won't be easy. Several tries left House Republicans unable to agree amongst themselves on a multi-year transportation policy. Meanwhile, many House conservatives consider the Senate bill a non-starter, largely because of its funding levels.
Now House Republicans begin the the conference at a distinct disadvantage. House and Senate Democrats are strongly behind the Senate bill, as are many Senate Republicans. The White House has also strongly backed the Senate's bid. SenatorJames Inhofe (R-Okla) leaned on House conservatives to accept the Senate's bill, which he helped craft with Boxer.
"I have every expectation we are going to be able to do that which the majority of Americans want done," he said.
House Republicans hold a few cards and are making some demands of their own. They want the Senate's $109 billion price tag reduced and are pushing hard to force the White House to accept final construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. They have also laid down markers repealing pending EPA coal ash pollution regulations.
"Let's not just spend more money. Let's have some serious reforms," urged Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) the conference committee's vice-chair.
Boxer began the proceedings with a long list of lobbying and interest organizations that support the Senate bill, ranging from AAA and trucking groups to the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"If the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce can work together, then surely we can work together," she said, adding that "failure is not an option for us."
But the reality is that in the 112th Congress, failure is, in fact, an option. Leadership aides in the House and Senate predicted that the election-year talks would likely lead to an agreement rejected by House Republican rank-and-file members. That could force Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to pass any final agreement with the help of large numbers of Democrats. Failing that, Congress can do what it's done nine times since 2005 and simply pass another extension of current law to avoid a shutdown.