March 29, 2012 – 2:01 p.m.

House GOP Leaders Predict Passage of Long-Term Highway Bill After Recess

With a 90-day extension of surface transportation programs expected to be on its way to President Obama’s desk later Thursday, House Republican leaders expressed confidence they will be able to move a longer-term measure shortly after the two-week recess.

But it was clear Thursday that the GOP majority will have to pass its five-year, $260 billion measure (HR 7) — or more likely a modified version — with little if any Democratic support.

“What miracle will come upon us after we come back?” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California asked rhetorically during a press conference shortly before she and most other Democrats voted against the 90-day extension (HR 4281). She repeated Democratic insistence that the House vote on a House version (HR 14) of the two-year, $109 billion transportation bill (S 1813) the Senate passed with bipartisan support earlier this month.

Republicans say they need more time to round up support for the five-year package that has been stalled since mid-February. That bill, introduced Jan. 31 by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John L. Mica, R-Fla., ran into opposition from conservatives who called it too expensive. Democrats and some Republicans objected to the bill’s elimination of guaranteed funding for public transportation.

Speaker John A. Boehner said the House will pass a longer-term bill soon after lawmakers return April 16. “We are working on putting together the final touches on that bill. It will be ready when we get back,” Boehner said. “We will move quickly and kick it over to the Senate.”

Mica and other Republicans have been modifying the bill in response to concerns among rank-and-file Republicans, but they say they need more time to seal a deal and send their legislation to a conference with the Senate-passed bill.

Mica has said he is willing to retain the Mass Transit Account, which receives 20 percent of Highway Trust Fund receipts to subsidize public transportation. Changes are also likely in the bill’s bus and truck safety provisions, and pressure is building from a variety of interest groups for new language regarding drunk driving, licensing of teenage drivers and pre-tax parking and transit benefits.

Aides will continue during the recess to discuss transportation issues with recently elected lawmakers. That effort will be supported by stakeholder groups eager for a long-term reauthorization.

“It’ll give us time to work on a bill that will provide certainty,” said Bill Shuster, R-Pa., a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee chairman who has been working with Mica and Boehner. “It doesn’t make sense to do an 18-month extension, which is essentially what the Senate bill is.”

But Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., challenged the view that Mica and Shuster will be able to pass a five-year bill and reach a compromise with the Senate in time to clear legislation before the 90-day extension expires June 30.

“They want to devolve it back to the states,” DeFazio said, suggesting that House GOP conservatives want to drastically reduce the federal role in transportation. “They want to go back to the pre-1950s.”

A number of conservative Republicans have publicly and privately voiced a desire for “devolution” measures that would return responsibility for transportation funding to the states. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., saw a devolution amendment he offered to the Senate’s transportation bill draw only 30 votes, but conservative groups including Heritage Action for America, FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth have eagerly pushed House Republicans to embrace the idea.

Richard E. Cohen contributed to this story.