Highway bill clears Senate, but GOP dissenters foreshadow House fight

Some senators challenged not just how to pay for a $109 billion highway bill, but also whether Washington should even continue its role financing the nation's roads, bridges, and ports.

With big achievements in short supply, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California noted that Wednesday’s vote to pass a transportation bill with wide bipartisan support was one “that brought us together.”

“I am very humbled by that because Lord knows it's hard to find those moments when we come together,” she told reporters after the vote.

But not all senators are feeling the bipartisan bliss in approving the two-year, $109 billion highway bill. While outnumbered more than 3 to 1 by “yea” votes, 22 Republican senators opposed the bill because they don’t agree on how to pay for it. Some are also questioning whether the federal government should get out of the transportation business almost entirely -- a challenge to more than half a century of federal policy.  

Both issues are likely to define the coming House debate -- and to determine just how (or if) the Senate transportation bill becomes law.

Thirty senators voted for an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina that would devolve almost all transportation funding to the states, slashing the federal gasoline tax (the chief method for funding transportation at the national level) and allowing states to set their own transportation priorities.

“Congress needs to wake up and realize we’re $15 trillion in debt, and we can’t keep doing these status-quo, big-spending compromises,” said Senator DeMint, a godfather of the tea party movement.

“We need commonsense reforms of the highway program that would empower states with flexibility to make their own transportation decisions," he added in a statement after the vote. “If we devolved the highway program to the states we could build and repair roads faster and less expensively.”

The subtext of DeMint’s amendment and, later, dissenting vote is clear: Not only has Congress moved past the old order of approving transportation bills larded up with member projects, or earmarks, but perhaps past putting the federal government in charge of most infrastructure planning altogether.

But spending complaints are not limited to those most closely affiliated with the insurgent tea party. Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget under the second Bush administration, cast a “nay” vote Wednesday because of what he sees as budget “gimmicks.” He is also wary of Congress’s reneging on last summer’s deal capping federal spending in return for authorizing an increase in the federal debt limit.

“I cannot support this version of the bill because it violates the Budget Control Act Congress passed last August,” said Congressman Portman in statement. “At a time of trillion-dollar deficits and a record $15 trillion debt, Congress must at the very least live by the spending restraint rules just put in place.”
In other words, the bill poses a sharp reminder to conservatives about last summer’s debt-ceiling fight. Many of the GOP’s most conservative members argued at the time that spending caps can be undone as quickly as they are put in place. In the transportation bill, they have just that potential.

Other opponents say that it does little to solve long-term, structural problems with transportation funding. The bill “failed to address the fact that the Highway Trust Fund is going bankrupt,” said Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, in a statement. “The bill finances construction for two years, but it does nothing to reconcile the long-term shortfalls in highway funding.”

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