It is a rare day on Capitol Hill when “transportation funding” and “Kabuki dance” find their way into the same sentence.
Wednesday was that day.
With his plan for the nation’s transportation system shredded by attacks from both sides of the aisle, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) sought to free his party from the charge that they are “do-nothing Republicans” by orchestrating a clever move.
The House approved what appeared to be the 10th extension of transportation funding since the last long-term bill expired more than two years ago. As a carrot for its most conservative members, the extension included non-transportation measures they support.
But everyone knew that once the extension reached the Senate, it would be stripped bare and replaced with a two-year transportation bill the Senate approved earlier this year. That bill would land in the lap of a conference committee.
“The House extension is a shell bill, a Kabuki dance,” one senior House staff member said. “They want to get this [in a conference committee] behind closed doors so they can work it, but what’s making the House conservatives crazy is that none of what they wanted in a transportation bill is in the Senate bill, and it obviously isn’t in the House extension, and in conference they’re required to stay within the bounds of the bills each side has passed.”
One of the non-transportation measures appended to the House extension was approval of the controversial Keystone oil pipeline. The White House has threatened a veto if a bill emerges from the conference committee with that provision intact.
Boehner’s motivation for pushing an extension that would revive a Senate bill that never reached the House floor?
“He just wants to get a bill out of here so people stop saying they’re blocking a jobs bill,” said the staff member, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the action.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said exactly that on Wednesday, accusing House Republicans of engaging in “gotcha politics.”
“They don’t want to hand the president a jobs bill before the election,” LaHood said, repeating that a transportation bill would put the construction industry back to work. “America’s one big pothole now. People ask, how come they’re not filling these potholes? It’s because Congress hasn’t taken any action. These people are going to have to go home and face the voters. They talk about creating jobs, but they’d done little or nothing about it.”
In speaking at a gathering hosted by Politico, LaHood, a former Republican member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, reiterated that transportation funding has historically bridged the partisan divide in Congress.
That those days of House bipartisanship are over was demonstrated again Wednesday in the bickering that preceded the vote. But in the end, the extension that wasn’t really an extension passed by a 293 to 127 vote with bipartisan support.
“The purpose of this extension is that we can hopefully bring about resolution and conference legislation to complete our transportation bill,” said John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House committee.
The Democrats who voted for the bill agreed.
“It appears that the House has finally found the path out of dysfunction junction,” Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) said. “We’ve been there too long. I’m anxious to get to conference. I’m anxious to get it done. I think we should get it done before May so states can capture the full construction season.”