“Unfortunately, this has turned into a political ‘gotcha’ game,” said House Transportation Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.), whose own transportation bill stalled in the face of bipartisan opposition. “I’ve done everything I can to move this forward.”
The extension died Tuesday following an afternoon of angry partisan acrimony, with both sides invoking Thomas Jefferson to bolster their arguments and blaming each other for past failures. The measure required that two-thirds of the House vote to suspend the rules, and it failed on a voice vote.
Federal transportation funding pumps about $1 billion a week into the economy, with much of it focused on the construction season that will get underway in most states next month.
“The delays are costing jobs,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), arguing for the House to approve a bipartisan Senate transportation bill rather than the proposed 60-day extension.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) reminded the Democrats that they did not approve a transportation measure between 2007 and 2011, when they controlled both houses of Congress.
“If they truly cared about rebuilding our infrastructure, they would have passed a bill,” Shuster said.
In a Congress that has achieved little of note other than bitter partisan warfare, the Senate pieced together a transportation bill this year that would provide $109 billion over two years, winning support from both sides of the aisle in a 72-22 vote that was hailed as a model of bipartisanship.
A measure that Mica shepherded through his committee did not fare as well when it reached the House floor. Ambitious in its effort to overhaul the federal system and give states greater authority, it ran into bipartisan opposition from urban lawmakers by ending dedicated funding for mass transit. It also riled the bipartisan Congressional Bike Caucus by eliminating dedicated funding for cycling and pedestrian programs.
If the House does not pass an extension or approve the Senate bill before adjourning Thursday for Easter break, transportation funding will expire at midnight Saturday.
Shuster said that “failing to pass a bill is not an option,” and everyone seemed to agree that failure would be a far bigger catastrophe than the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration that occurred last summer when a bitter battle stalled extension of its funding.
But the immediate impact of this potential funding expiration was not as clear. States pay for transportation projects and then seek reimbursement from the federal government.
“Projects that are underway might not come to a halt,” said Matthew Jeanneret of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. “But if this drags on a long time, states are going to have a greater degree of uncertainty.”
If funding expires, however, so will the government’s authority to collect the 18.4 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax that pays, in large measure, for transportation funding.