Transportation Nation

Optimism on Transpo Conference, Sweating the Easy Stuff

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Senator Barbara Boxer

The chair of the congressional conference committee trying to get agreement on a transportation bill is cheerleading its chances, but she admits negotiators haven't yet touched the hard stuff.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) took some time Tuesday to tell reporters how optimistic she is that House and Senate negotiators can find common ground on highway and surface transportation funding by a June 30th deadline. The conference kicked off last week.

"The process has been very inclusive and I expect that to produce a result," Boxer said. The Environment and Public Works Committee Chair said she's exercising an "open-door" policy with Republicans and Democrats so that everyone feels heard as the conference marches toward its deadline.

That includes, apparently, a meeting with the conference vice-chair Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) scheduled for Thursday, where Boxer says other members are invited to attend.

Still, for all the enthusiasm, Boxer acknowledged that tough, partisan issues like GOP demands to repeal EPA's new coal ash rules and to include completion of the Keystone XL oils sands pipeline have not yet been discussed.

"We haven't gotten to the areas of disagreement," Boxer said. "We will."

Boxer has set about making her best case for the Senate's MAP-21 highway bill, which passed with 74 votes back in March. She's got a lot of Senate Republicans, and probably nearly all House Democrats on her side up against a House Republican position demanding program reforms, lower spending, Keystone, and the coal ash provisions. One big question is whether, in the end, Republican leaders' price for supporting the bill--likely to include Keystone--can get by Senate Democrats in a politically-charged election-year environment.

"I didn't hear anybody draw a line in the sand," Boxer said.

Congress has temporarily extended highway legislation nine times since it expired in 2009.

Follow Todd Zwillich on Twitter @toddzwillich

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The Brian Lehrer Show

In The House

Monday, May 14, 2012

Robert Draper, contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic and GQ and the author of Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, talks about the House of Representatives since the 2010 elections.

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Transportation Nation

Negotiators Kick Off Highway Bill Conference; Boxer Warns "Failure Is Not An Option"

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

(Photo (cc) by Flickr user Crazy George)

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.

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It's A Free Country ®

The List: The Winners of NY Money in Congressional Races

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Presidential campaigns routinely make the rounds in New York during presidential campaigns. So do Republicans and Democrats who come to New York to make their case for donations and control in Congress. Here are the big winners of New York money in Congressional elections in 2012 and 2008. 


On The Media

Balancing Cybersecurity and Privacy

Friday, May 04, 2012

Last week, the cybersecurity bill CISPA passed the House of Representatives. Brooke talks to Congressman Adam Schiff about why he was initially for the bill and why he decided that in its current form it did not offer enough privacy protections to American citizens.

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The Takeaway

Blue Dog Day Afternoon

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

It’s a tough time to be a moderate Democrat in the halls of Congress. Only 24 so-called blue dog Democrats remain in Congress, and as the November elections near, several of them are looking at tough re-election campaigns. An unpopular president sharing the ticket, major redistricting, and tough conservative opponents may make the blue dog extinct. Robert “Bud” Cramer is a long-time blue dog Democrat. He's formerly the Congressman for Alabama’s 5th Congressional District, and is now the Chairman of Wexler Walker Public Policy Associates.


Transportation Nation

It's Baaaack: GOP Guns for Another 90-day Highway Extension

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

House Republicans now say they'll take another shot at temporarily extending the gas tax and other highway bill provisions, after watching their last two attempts falter earlier this week.

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fl.) told reporters off the House floor Wednesday he would reintroduce a 60-day extension, but that this time Republicans planned to bring it to the floor under a procedure requiring a simple 218-vote majority to pass. The vote is likely to come tomorrow, just before the House leaves on a two-week recess.

Minutes later, Mica returned to say he was "recalculating," and that he would also file a 90-day straight extension to the existing highway bill. Mica had talked it over with GOP leaders and said the 90-day extension is what he "was told to do." Republicans aides said part of the issue was that a 60-day extension would likely expire while Congress was out of town on the Memorial Day recess, complicating efforts to get a House-Senate agreement on a final Highway bill.

Twice already this week Republicans have had to yank extensions off the floor after trying to use an expedited procedure requiring a 2/3 majority for passage. Wednesday's move makes it easier to pass the bill because it requires just a simple majority. The bill would then go to the Senate, where Democrats have been pushing hard for House Republicans to pass the Senate's version of the legislation. Earlier this month the Senate passed a $109 billion, two-year Highway Bill with a 74-vote bipartisan majority.

Senate Democrats even trotted out the well-worn Washington device of a countdown clock, ticking down to midnight Saturday when existing authority to collect the 18.4-cent gas tax and fund highway and road projects expires.

Senate Dems have said they have no interest in an extension but have not gone as far as to say a temporary bill is off the table. That suggests a shutdown Saturday is highly unlikely.

Still, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not indicated that Democrats would accept either a 60- or 90-day extension, leaving open the possibility that it may not pass the Senate by this weekend. Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) explained that Republicans strategy was to pass a temporary extension and the "pray that the Senate didn't call our bluff and things shut down next week."

Follow Todd Zwillich on Twitter @toddzwillich

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Transportation Nation

Dems Trip Up GOP on Highway Extension Again

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

House Speaker John Boehner (photo by Todd Zwillich)

For the second straight day, House Democrats have foiled an attempt by Republicans to pass a temporary Highway Bill extension designed to avoid a suspension of the gas tax and a shutdown of highway programs March 31.

Republicans were forced to pull a 60-day extension from the House floor Tuesday afternoon after Democrats refused to support the bill. Republicans were using an expedited procedure requiring support from 2/3 of the chamber for passage. That's just a day after a 90-extension was yanked under similar circumstances.

Democrats are sticking to their position that the House should take up the two-year, $109 billion Highway Bill the Senate passed earlier this month with 74 votes. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) warned House Republicans two weeks ago that they would have to accept the Senate bill -- or one similar to it -- unless they could reach agreement on their own broader measure. That never happened, and last week Boehner was back to panning the Senate bill.

Tuesday's move turns up the heat on House Republicans to either accept the Senate's bill or use a slower procedure for a temporary extension. The latter choice seems far more likely, as it will allow the Speaker to pass an extension with a bare majority of the House -- and avoid a revolt from conservatives unhappy with the Senate package.

There are a still a few days to go before current highway law (and the 18.4 cent gas tax feeding the Highway Trust Fund) expires. Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker Boehner, told Transportation Nation in an email, "There is only one reason this bill will not be voted on tonight:  House Democrats are playing political games with our nation’s economy.”

Follow Todd Zwillich on Twitter @toddzwillich


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Proposed Republican Budget Cuts Rile Democrats

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Republican Congressional leaders are staking out their positions on the federal budget, setting up what will most likely become another series of policy fights with President Barack Obama this election year.


Transportation Nation

BREAKING: Highway Bill Could Be Headed for a Standoff

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

People with a stake in the billions of dollars worth of highway funds and gas taxes may have breathed a temporary sigh of relief a few hours ago when Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica said the GOP would opt for a temporary extension next week.

Not so fast.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says he's not interested in putting a temporary extension of the Highway bill on the Senate floor if the House passes one next week, given that the Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion version of its own last week with 74 votes.

The current Highway bill extension runs out March 31. That means the Senate can keep the program going by passing the House's temporary extension, which will likely include a motion to go to conference with the Senate.

"I'm not inclined to do that," Reid told reporters Tuesday.

If Reid sticks to his guns, that leaves Option Two: Force the House to swallow the Senate's two-year bill or, Option Three: Risk being held responsible for a shutdown reminiscent of last summer's Federal Aviation Administration shutdown fiasco.

Time is running short, and House Republicans have already said they won't try for a version of their 5-year bill before the Easter recess. "There's plenty of time for the House to pass our bill," a Senate Democratic leadership aid says.

The aide wouldn't go so far as to close down all possibilities of a temporary extension as House Republicans now want. But the tough talk has started, and along with it a game of chicken with a March 31 deadline.

"The House had their chance, and they blew it," the aide said.

Follow Todd Zwillich on Twitter @toddzwillich





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The Brian Lehrer Show

Washington Politics: Transportation, Taxes, More

Monday, March 19, 2012

While it may seem like all politics is geared towards the fall election, Congress continues to debate important bills. Todd Zwillich, Takeaway Washington correspondent, fills us in.

Comments [3]

The Takeaway

Why Don't More African-Americans Seek Higher Office?

Friday, March 16, 2012

When President Obama became the first black president in 2008, it seemed to mark a tremendous historical turning point for black representation in American political life. But four years later there has been no great renaissance in black electoral representation. If the number of office-holders was demographically proportionate, there would be at least 12 African American senators and six governors. In reality, there are currently no African-American senators and only one African-American governor in office.

Comments [3]

The Takeaway

Once Bipartisan, Violence Against Women Act Now Faces Political Fight

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the federal legislation aimed at ending violence against women and supporting victims of violence, is up for reauthorization this year. Senate Democrats plan to begin the push for reauthorization today. The original bill, passed in 1994, enjoyed strong support from both sides of the aisle. This year, Republican critics are voicing opposition, particularly to new programs included in this iteration of VAWA, including expanded programs for illegal immigrants to access visas by claiming domestic violence and support for victims in same-sex relationships. Democrats claim that this is the latest in Republicans' war on women. Republicans claim that federal money needs to be spent responsibly. What does this mean for the future of VAWA and for female voters in the 2012 election?

Comments [6]

The Leonard Lopate Show

Backstory: The Jobs Bill

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On today’s Backstory, ProPublicas Jesse Eisinger talks about what’s inside a jobs bill-- The Jump-Start Our Business Act --that just passed in the House of Representatives. We’ll also look at how the Federal Reserve has dealt with the country’s largest financial firms.










Transportation Nation

Reversing a Radical Rewrite: Can Boehner Go Bipartisan?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rep. Bill Shuster at bat in congressional baseball game, perhaps pinch hitting for Mica. (House photo)

It’s hard to see clearly through the wreckage of the House transportation bill, but Speaker John Boehner’s actions last week—saying his chamber would work with legislation put forth by the Democratic Senate, “or something like it,” and asking Railroad Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster to lead the way—suggest the speaker might actually be looking to win minority votes on a bill he touted as a boon for long-term job growth.

The stunning turnaround came as Boehner at last admitted defeat on the unpopular five-year legislation he and transportation chairman John Mica put forth. Reminiscent of the FAA showdown, which left congressional leadership singed, the current transportation authorization expires March 31st, and has already been extended eight times since its expiration in 2009.

There was plenty not to like in the House bill, which would have paid for transportation in part with a controversial extension of oil and gas drilling and would have exiled transit projects from the highway trust fund, undoing a legacy left by Ronald Reagan. Conservatives complained that the price tag was too high, while moderate metropolitan Republicans chafed at the snub to mass transit funding. U.S. Secretary Ray LaHood, himself a former Republican congressman,  repeatedly trashed the bill as "lousy," "terrible," "the worst bill in decades" and "taking us back to the horse and buggy days."

Even had it passed the House, the Boehner-Mica bill’s severe provisions would have guaranteed a showdown with the Senate, almost surely leading to gridlock and brinkmanship. This just as independent voters are recoiling even further from what they see as congressional dysfunction and party extremism.

In the absence of consensus among Republicans, Boehner’s decision to shelve the bill seems apt. More telling, though, was his move to bench Mica and enlist Shuster. Congressional Quarterly, in initially reporting the decision, painted the hand-off as a rebuke of Mica, presumably for failing to gather and hold Republican support. The speaker’s office insists that wasn’t the intent, however, and indeed an alternate narrative seems plausible: Boehner is trying to reach across the aisle.

Going bipartisan would be so unusual for House Republicans, many activists fear it's a feign or a trap. But if Boenher wanted to use the week long recess to regroup and try to shore up Republican support, he could have easily stuck with Mica, who authored the bill to Boehner’s liking and who has repeatedly bent loyally to the prevailing conservative winds in the House. Instead, the speaker tapped Bill Shuster, a moderate on transportation who hails from Pennsylvania, a half-urban, half-rural state that relies fairly heavily on rail (and which produced the pro-transit Senator Rick Santorum).

Perhaps more importantly, Bill Shuster is a Shuster. His father, Bud Shuster, chaired the House transportation committee from 1995 until he resigned from Congress in 2001—largely because a party policy on term limitations for committee heads forced him to give up his beloved chairmanship. Bill took Bud’s seat in a special election later that year.

During the six-year Shuster chairmanship, as with the six-year reign of Don Young that followed, the task of transportation lawmaking was carried out with great bipartisan comity and, not unrelated, rampant earmarking.  The chairmen got their pork—Young his infamous Alaskan bridges to nowhere and the senior Shuster the irregularly numbered Interstate 99, now the “Bud Shuster Highway”—but so did their colleagues.

The last two long-term surface transportation reauthorizations happened under these men’s watch, and in those votes and several since the players who are today taking center stage showed their colors. When Bud Shuster sponsored TEA-21 in 1998, Mica voted for it, and Boehner voted against it. When Young sponsored SAFETEA-LU in 2005, Mica and Bill Shuster voted for it, and Boehner was one of only nine who voted against it. In 2008, when the new Democratic chairman Jim Oberstar pushed through Amtrak reauthorization, Mica and Bill Shuster voted for that too, and Boehner voted against it.

To his credit, Boehner has been consistent in pining for fundamental changes in transportation funding. In 2005, sore about earmarking in SAFETEA-LU and Ohio’s status as a “donor state” (one that pays more into the Highway Trust fund than it gets back from Washington), he argued that “in a perfect world, the states would keep the taxes they collect and the federal government would only get involved in those projects that are inherently federal.”

By contrast, Mica spoke in favor of SAFETEA-LU’s increased funding, though he wanted more donor/donee equity, then he boasted of the money he brought home. In 2007, after the I-35 bridge collapse, he was thinking big, meeting with President Bush to explain the urgency of a national infrastructure effort. Shortly after, he told the Texas Transportation Summit that the nation’s infrastructure needed dramatic overhaul, even mentioning high speed rail and inland waterways, two sectors that probably weren’t represented in Texas enough for this to be considered pandering.

As we know, Mica’s excitement about high speed rail waned after the 2010 midterm elections made him chairman. He cooperated with his party leadership’s efforts to constrain the budget and defeat President Obama’s infrastructure initiatives. But Bill Shuster hasn’t been quite so loyal. He has parted ways with Boehner and Mica when necessary to support transportation funding, and he has often prevailed. In 2007, Shuster voted against an unsuccessful Republican effort to defund Amtrak by half a billion dollars; the other two voted for it. In 2008, Shuster was the only one of the three to support Oberstar’s National Highway Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act, which passed the House 367-55.

Shuster’s rhetoric  has also been maverick -- for a Republican. In 2005, when both Boehner and Mica publicly complained about the federal redistribution of state tax revenues, Shuster actually defended the doner/donee designations, and called out Mica’s home state in the process.

"It has been the wise practice in surface transportation reauthorization to take into account that some regions are saddled with greater needs than others and need a larger rate of return to maintain our national transportation system,” he said on the floor of the House.

Pennsylvania “ranks third in the amount of through truck traffic that neither originates nor terminates in the State. Pennsylvania receives little benefit from such commerce traveling through our State, yet States such as Florida, which is able to get its goods to the large Northeastern markets, benefit, while we still suffer from the constant pounding and damage caused by this through traffic.” Apparently Shuster didn’t get the memo.

Given Shuster’s moderate views and votes, it’s hard to imagine that Boenher would swap Mica for Shuster if the plan was for Republicans to hold their ground and fight. At any rate, Democrats are taking the Pennsylvanian's new prominence as a good sign. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had kind, hopeful words for Shuster. “His father I knew very well,” he told The Hill. “If his son is anything like the dad, it will help get this bill done.”

And if the son is shopping legislation that’s a little more like his dad’s, that’ll probably help too.


(Hat tip to the essential Project Vote Smart)

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.


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Transportation Nation

Boehner: We'll Work with Senate if GOP Balks on Highway Bill

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Speaker John Boehner (House Photo)

The Senate's transportation bill bill may be the last game in town.

House Republicans leaders have been struggling for weeks to drum up enough support in their own ranks to pass a 5-year bill. Now, faced with a ticking clock on an expiring law, they may be forced to align instead with a bipartisan alternative now on the Senate floor.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) acknowledged Thursday that the GOP's bill still doesn't have the votes it needs to come to the floor and pass. That's despite last-ditch pleas from Republican leaders this week, warning members that the bill might be their last chance to put a conservative stamp on a debate that must ultimately include the Senate and President Obama.

"At this point in time the plan is to bring up the Senate bill, or something like it," Boehner told reporters. He added that talks continue over the 5-year bill, priced originally at $260 billion. Boehner said a longer-term bill is one "most of our members want.'

But getting enough of them to agree to how to do it, and where to find the money to pay for it has proved another matter. And House Democrats have kept the effort at arm's length.

Meanwhile, the Senate began voting on amendments to its own 2-year, $109 billion bill Thursday, though none was directly related to transportation policy. The most high profile vote killed a GOP effort to force approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called Boehner's comments "a big step forward" in getting final agreement on a bill.  Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) who handles political strategy and messaging for Senate Democrats, said Democrats and Republicans could reach a bipartisan deal on the bill and urged Republicans not to "muck it up."

The Senate is set to continue voting on transportation amendments next Tuesday.


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Payroll Tax Agreement Leaves Transit Tax Behind

Friday, February 17, 2012

Commuters had high hopes that Congress would restore the full federal transit tax benefit, cut late last year, as part of the massive payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits bill passed today. But it didn’t happen Friday. 

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The Takeaway

Congress Stalls on Transportation Bills

Thursday, February 16, 2012

If there's one thing that Republicans and Democrats traditionally agree on it's transportation legislation. Yet this is not the case for two different transportation bills that are stalled in the House and Senate. Tea Party conservatives are complaining about the cost, even thought traditional GOP members want to create jobs. Some think the problem is lack of earmarks, which bring "pork" to certain districts.


Transportation Nation

Transit Tax Deduction Amendment Doesn't Make Payroll Deal

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New York Senator Charles Schumer has been pushing to restore the transit tax deduction as part of the payroll tax deal.

But as of late Wednesday,  Schumer's office said the amendment was not part of the deal.

In December, Congress let a tax break for transit riders expire.  The benefit gave both drivers and transit riders $230 in pre-tax dollars to spend on commuting.  As of January 1, transit riders lost $105 in deductions, and drivers gained $10

Schumer still has an amendment to get the benefit restored in the Senate Transportation bill, but the fate of that bill is uncertain.

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With Focus On Obama Budget, Fiscal Watchdog Warns Of Broken Process

Monday, February 13, 2012

David Walker, one-time head of the Government Accountability Office, pointed out something that isn't news but still has the power to disturb when you actually take the time to mull it over: Congress has gotten in the habit of not passing spending bills on time or budget resolutions at all.