The federal transportation bill, like these cars, has encountered gridlock. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Washington — With the federal highway program due to shut down in 10 days, House and Senate leaders remained at odds Wednesday over how to break the legislative gridlock over a new transportation bill, even as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pleaded for action.
LaHood joined Democratic senators on Capitol Hill to urge his former House Republican colleagues to pass the Senate-approved two-year, $109-billion bill.
But House GOP leaders, who have struggled to unify their majority behind a bill, are preparing to consider a three-month extension of the highway program beyond March 31 while they continue to work on their own long-term legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he is not inclined to support another short-term extension, an effort to increase the pressure on the House to take up the Senate bill, which passed with bipartisan support.
The Senate bill would significantly expand a federal loan program that could speed up projects in Los Angeles and other cities. But it does not include a measure sought by House Republicans that would expand offshore oil drilling to generate funds for transportation projects.
"For one day, I’m asking the House, set aside politics," LaHood said at a news conference. "This is to put Americans to work."
"The clock is ticking on a shutdown of our nation’s transportation programs," added Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted that if the Senate bill would be put to a vote in the House, it would pass easily. "So what the heck is Speaker Boehner afraid of?"’ he said.
Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said, "The Senate-passed bill does nothing to address American energy at a time when the American people are being pummeled by rising gas prices.
"The plan in the House is to instead take up a short-term highway extension, providing more time for consensus to be built for an approach that acknowledges the need for meaningful action on American energy."
Although Congress has approved a number of short-term extensions since the last highway bill expired in September 2009, officials say that states need greater certainty over funding in order to plan projects.
Some also fear that putting off a decision until summer could make it more difficult to get an agreement on a long-term bill because of heightened partisanship ahead of the fall election.
The fight over a bill that traditionally has enjoyed bipartisan support is the latest sign of election-year congressional dysfunction.
But Congress last year showed it can reach agreement when up against a deadline, resolving a budget stalemate only hours before a threatened government shutdown and ending a monthlong impasse over raising the nation's debt limit shortly before the government risked defaulting on its obligations.
On the other hand, the Federal Aviation Administration was partially shut down for two weeks in a congressional dispute.
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