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Congressional Disruption: Senior House Transportation Leader, DeFazio, Now FacesTight Race

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 04:09 PM

(Washington, D.C. — Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) One of the House's most powerful voices on transportation all of the sudden finds himself in a tough re-election race.

Even in an anti-incumbent year, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), was considered one of the most invulnerable. The 11-term congressman won reelection in 2008 with 82% of the vote in his sprawling coastal Oregon district and was once heavily courted by Democrats to run for Senate. But now a recent GOP poll has DeFazio just 6 percentage points ahead of Republican Art Robinson. All the important caveats about the validity of one single poll — and a GOP internal one at that — of course apply here. But DeFazio chairs the House Highways and Transit subcommittee, so any prospect of his ouster does raise questions, especially about the prospects for the next national highway bill.

DeFazio has told constituents on the campaign trail that passing the $500 billion national highway authorization bill will be one of his top priorities should he be re-elected. The bill is in limbo now as lawmakers struggle to make up a $150 billion funding shortfall for the bill without taking the dreaded and politically suicidal step of raising the federal gas tax. DeFazio, who enjoys heavy support from transit unions, has made beefing up infrastructure and transit programs, including high-speed rail, a priority during his time at the head of the committee.

The Republican most likely to take over the Highways and Transit subcommittee in the event of a GOP House takeover is Rep. John "Jimmy" Duncan (R-Tenn.), an 11-term veteran who is nearly guaranteed re-election. Still, even in this fractious Congress, Duncan, a conservative, and DeFazio, a staunch progressive, are not as far apart as one would think on transportation policy.

Duncan has repeatedly called for a long-term reauthorization of the traditionally bi-artisan highway bill, which he helped craft along with DeFazio and other senior members of the House Transportation Committee. But Duncan has also joined calls for a ban on lawmakers' pet spending projects known as earmarks, which make up about one percent of total funding in any given highway bill. While that may not seem like much, it can easily decide the fate of that extra new lane on your local commercial road or the highway overpass your county council is trying to get built.

A broader question, beyond simply who heads up the Highways and Transit subcommittee, might be what a House GOP takeover means for big-picture federal spending. One of Republicans' biggest planks is reducing the government expenditure, especially on the domestic discretionary side. That could put GOP priorities and a well-funded highways bill at direct odds.

Republicans have already spent time attacking President Barack Obama's call for a $50 billion infrastructure spending package aimed at highways, rail lines, runways and air traffic control. The White House says it wants to try and pass the funding in the Lame Duck congressional session scheduled for the weeks after the midterm elections.

One poll isn't enough to suggest that DeFazio is really in danger of losing his seat. As surprising as those latest numbers are, poll aggregators like FiveThirtyEight still give DeFazio more than a 99% chance of reelection.

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