House Republicans split up transportation bill, promise full debate

House Republicans eager to act on their long-term transportation proposal this week said Tuesday that they would split the massive legislation into three separate bills to speed the process.

The plan already has sparked debate over proposals to create new revenue by expanding offshore oil exploration and to eliminate traditional dedicated funding for mass transit.

A third controversy arose last week when it was proposed that federal employees pay about $40 billion more into their pension fund, a savings in tax dollars that would be diverted to fund transportation.

The three-way split will result in a bill for highways and transit, a bill to expand offshore drilling and a third bill requiring federal workers to contribute 1.5 percent more to their government retirement plan.

The original five-year bill was facing close to 300 proposed amendments, many of them already defeated once in committee, as it headed for the House floor.

“We are determined to allow as many members to participate and offer their amendments on the floor as possible. The process will facilitate this,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said in a joint statement.

They said that separating the bill would allow “each major component of the plan to be debated and amended more openly, rather than as a single comprehensive bill with limited debate and limited opportunity for amendment.”

They pledged to begin floor action this week.

The partisan tension in the House was apparent in both the Boehner-Dreier statement and in the Democratic response.

Boehner and Dreier set their action in contrast to the “previous Democratic majority, whose preference for large bills with limited debate and minimal opportunities for amendment infamously resulted in flawed legislation.”

Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House transportation committee, fired back, “Despite their spin, it appears Republican leaders are starting to get nervous that they do not have the votes to pass this highly controversial bill, which should not surprise anyone given no other surface transportation bill has generated near the controversy, rancor, or partisanship in the 56-year history of the Interstate Highway System.”

By contrast, a two-year transportation bill making its way through the Senate has received bipartisan backing. Though the bill emerged from three Senate committees with unanimous support, its backers worried Tuesday that its progress would be slowed by debate over a series of controversial amendments unrelated to transportation issues.

Among the amendments is one by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) sparked by the birth control controversy that would allow employers to deny any health services in their insurance plans if they are not in keeping with their “religious beliefs and moral convictions.”

“Clearly, my Republican friends want to offer very controversial amendments, [and] that’s really a problem for them,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has played a key role in advancing the Senate bill. “The outside world, looking in, they don’t understand why you do a birth control amendment on a highway bill. They’re thinking, what is this about? Is this about, if you’re on a federal highway maybe you can’t take your birth control pill?”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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