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Senate Moves to Shake up Transportation Conference Amid Hill Sniping

Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - 05:02 PM

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) (photo by Todd Zwillich)

Senate negotiators tried to break an impasse with House Republicans over a surface transportation bill Tuesday, thought the proffer did little to quell a cross-Capitol war of words.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate-House conference committee trying to reach a transportation bill deal, told reporters she and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) sent the deal toward the house earlier in the day. Boxer said the offer was "very warmly received" but also acknowledged it skirted contentious political issues including building the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline and gutting new coal ash regs from the EPA.

Boxer dismissed reports from earlier in the day suggesting the conference was near collapse, and that another temporary extension would be needed to keep highway funding going past a June 30 deadline.

A spokesman for conference vice-chair Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said, "we will take a look at the proposal and discuss it with our conferees." It was a noncommittal response skirting the obvious: Time is running short to get a deal by the end of the month, and House conservatives are dead against agreeing to a transportation deal that doesn't go over President Barack Obama's head and force approval of the Keystone pipeline.

"We're going back and forth on all that stuff. I think in the final analysis it all has to be in there," said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a Republican negotiator. On Boxer and Inhofe's offer, Hoeven said, "Let's just say we're still working on it."

Those issues could still be worked out. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appeared to be helping quiet talk of a faltering conference Tuesday afternoon. Asked it negotiations were falling apart, Reid said, "I don't have any dire statement to give."

But then things got heated. "There's a battle going on between (House Speaker John) Boehner and (House GOP Leader Eric) Cantor as to whether or not there should be a bill," Reid told reporters. "Cantor, of course, I'm told by others that he wants to not do a bill to make the economy worse, because he feels that's better for them. I hope that that's not true," Reid continued.

The statement elicited swift and sharp reactions from House GOP leaders.

“Leader Reid’s claims are ridiculous and patently false.  Rather than making up stories that have no basis in reality, Leader Reid should follow the House’s example and focus on pro-growth measures that will get the economy going and get people back to work,” read a statement from a Cantor spokesperson.

Boehner spokesperson Michael Steel was less diplomatic about Reid's comments. “That’s bullshit.  House Republicans are united in our desire to get a sensible, reform-minded transportation bill done, including job-creating energy initiatives like Keystone.”

Aides to Reid did not clarify his statement. But one aide described Senate Democrats as "not pessimistic" about the chances of an agreement by June 30.

Earlier, Boxer said that issues outside the Senate offer, including Keystone, coal ash regulations, and financing changes, would have to be "worked out later."

Follow Todd Zwillich on Twitter @toddzwillich

 

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