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BREAKING: Lawmaker: Highway Conference Dead, It's an Extension

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 - 02:30 PM

(UPDATED WITH HARRY REID'S COMMENTS) There are varying degrees of pessimism and cautious optimism in the US Capitol today as House and Senate negotiators huddle for a last try at agreement on a Highway Bill. But one lawmaker close to the House Republican leadership says conference negotiations have failed and that a six-month extension is afoot.

"Zero," said Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), when asked about the chances of last-ditch conference negotiations yielding an agreement before next week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)  is set to meet with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) at 4 PM today. Chief negotiators Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) are also scheduled to be in on the meeting. "The purpose is to come up with a clean extension" of six months, LaTourette said in an interview.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid disputed that assessment, saying it was not accurate that leaders are set to negotiate on a six-month extension this afternoon.

LaTourette's comments are in contrast to more optimistic statements from other negotiators who are trying to put the best light possible on the faltering talks. Indeed, nothing stops conference talks from producing a deal even while leaders are laying the groundwork for failure.

Republicans and Democrats are still at odds on several policy areas, including streamlining environmental reviews for road projects, transportation "enhancements" that push highway money toward bike paths and beautification projects, and program consolidations.

That's before leaders even tackle politically charged issues like the Keystone XL pipeline and EPA regulations governing coal ash.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va) emerged from a Democrats-only meeting in the Capitol Tuesday to say none of the issues was insolvable. "I still rate it above 50%," Rahall said of the chances of an agreement before a June 30 deadline.

How far above 50%? "Fifty-one," he said.

Freshman negotiator Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) agreed with with Rahall's tepid assessment. "Everybody's staring at each other right now and waiting for someone to blink," he said.

LaTourette, meanwhile, suggested House and Senate leaders would start ironing out a 6-month highway bill extension that would hit the floor if and when conference negotiators fail. That agreement is likely to contain some extra money for river and harbor dredging programs in order to win over some balking Republicans, he said.

Follow Todd Zwillich on Twitter @toddzwillich

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