Mica on Transportation Bill: Path Forward is Unclear

Congress has until the end of March to pass a highway bill or extend the current one. How that will happen is anyone's guess.
by | February 29, 2012

House Republicans may start working on a short-term extension to the highway and transit bill and then send it to the Senate, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica said Wednesday.

The latest version of Mica's own legislation, a five-year, $260 billion highway and transit people "is on life support," he conceded. Support for it began to quickly erode when Republicans added a provision that would strip transit of its dedicated funding stream, creating division within their own ranks.

The legislation expires at the end of March. Unless Congress passes a new highway and transit bill or extends the current one -- which it's been doing for more than two years now -- work on transportation projects across the country could halt.

Mica, explaining the possible paths forward for the surface transportation bill, alluded to last year's debacle in which Congress ultimately allowed the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) authorization to expire, resulting in a partial shutdown.

As the deadline to pass an FAA bill approached last summer, Mica introduced a short-term extension that the House passed. But it included a controversial prohibition that would make cuts to a program that subsidizes the cost of air travel at some small airports. Senate Democrats, who opposed the cut, rejected the House bill, allowing the extension to expire and the FAA to partially shut down. Eventually, Democrats passed the extension with those House-ordered cuts.

Mica, who spoke at a high-speed rail conference Wednesday morning, seemed to suggest the House may take a similar approach with the highway and transit extension.

"That's another option," Mica said. "It may not be a good one, but sometimes you have to take tough steps to move people off dead center here."

Still, the ultimate path forward is unclear. "We've got about half a dozen options I've discussed with our leadership staff, who will make the decision," Mica said.

Mica's own legislation lost traction when the House Ways & Means Committee added a provision that eliminated a dedicated funding source for transit. That riled the transit community, as well as Republican lawmakers from urban areas. Unlike the Senate's version of the surface transportation bill -- which has bipartisan support -- the House legislation includes a variety of provisions that are non-starters for Democrats, including approval of the Keystone Pipeline and expanded oil and gas drilling. That means it will be crucial for Republicans to have unity among their own ranks for it to pass. Right now, that's not the case.  
 
Mica also said a key reason it's been difficult to secure support for the bill among House Republicans is that earmarks no longer exist. "I can't attract member support for the bill by promising them some piece of the pie, so to speak," Mica said. 
 
Yet Mica -- who expects conservatives to take more seats in the Senate and House after this year's election -- said members of the transportation community have a vested interest in seeing an authorization passed before then. "Those who think that by putting off some decisions it's going to look better -- I think they'll look back and say the Mica proposal was pretty mild compared to what could come."
 
While speaking to reporters, Mica became defensive when asked about a Politico report indicating some Republican member members are blaming him for the bill's lack of progress. Some say he's a victim of circumstance. Mica has taken his cues for the spending level of the legislation from House leadership. At one point last year, House Republicans were pursuing a highway and transit bill that would have averaged just $35 billion per year. Eventually, they allowed more spending. But Mica's committee isn't the one who decides where the money comes from. 
 
"The policy is very sound," he added, referring to his own committee's contribution to the legislation. "The funding has been and continues to be an issue... I have no say in that."

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