WASHINGTON — With a potential shutdown of federal highway and transit programs looming, House Republican leaders abruptly canceled a vote Monday on three-month extension bill aimed at keeping aid flowing to states while Congress debates an overhaul of transportation policy.
Republicans had planned to bring the extension bill to the floor under rules that require a two-thirds vote for passage. In order to do that, they needed the votes of about 50 Democrats. But Democratic leaders urged their members to oppose the extension in an attempt to pressure GOP leaders to permit a vote on a $109 billion bill recently passed by the Senate. The Senate bill would overhaul transportation programs while extending them through the end of the 2013 federal budget year.
Facing a likely defeat, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, cancelled a vote on the extension bill.
"We are in the midst of bipartisan conversations about a short-term extension of the highway bill. To facilitate those conversations, the House vote on an extension will occur later this week rather than tonight," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.
Without action by Congress, the government's authority to spend money on transportation programs and levy federal fuel taxes expires Saturday. Democrats estimate that as many as 1.8 million construction-related jobs would be at risk just as states are gearing up for the spring and summer construction season. The government would also lose about $110 million a day in revenue in uncollected gas and diesel taxes.
The decision to pull the extension bill is the latest embarrassment for Boehner on an issue that he said last fall would be the centerpiece of House Republicans' job creation agenda. For weeks Republicans have struggled unsuccessfully to line up enough votes to pass a five-year transportation overhaul bill. Tea party conservatives object to the bill because it spends more money on transportation programs than can be paid for by user fees like fuel taxes. Democrats are opposed to the measure. They said it penalizes union workers, undermines environmental protections and would be paid for in part by expanded offshore oil drilling.
The extension bill was supposed to buy Republicans time to tweak their bill to the point it could attract enough votes to pass. But, like the larger transportation overhaul, it's not clear that Boehner has the votes to pass a three-month extension even if Republicans follow House rules that would enable the bill to pass by a simple majority vote.
Conservative lobbying groups who want to shrink the federal government oppose the extension. And some moderate Republicans have joined Democrats in a letter to Boehner asking that the House fall in behind the Senate bill instead.
The soonest an extension vote is likely to occur is Wednesday, leaving relatively little time for the Senate to act.
"The most responsible path forward at this point would be to drop the political brinkmanship and pass the bipartisan Senate transportation bill that the president could sign before these critical job-creating programs expire Saturday night," Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the senior Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said.