WASHINGTON — With another deadline fast approaching, Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe is working to persuade members of his party that they should support a highway bill that keeps road and bridge funding close to current levels.
“With this attitude out there, where so many members of the Senate and the House have this fear of the Tea Party people, they're scared to death to vote for anything that has a bunch of zeros in it,” Inhofe said in an interview.
Inhofe, of Tulsa, spent part of last week calling freshman House members — “all Tea Party,” he said — and trying to convince them that it would be the “conservative position” to support legislation that would stabilize transportation funding for two or three years.
If Congress can't come together on a long-term policy, he said, the uncertainty will continue to cause serious problems for critical projects. Moreover, he said, the bill now under consideration would change some provisions of federal highway policy — such as spending road and bridge money on roadside attractions — that have long rankled conservatives.
At the end of the week, Inhofe felt like he was getting through to them.
“I don't want to say that each one of them is going to support it, because we don't even know what (the bill) is going to look like yet, but they're all anxious to have a bill and to pass it,” he said.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, is among the freshman lawmakers trying to negotiate a highway bill that could pass the House and Senate. And he's the type of conservative that Inhofe is trying to win over.
“Transportation has a unique federal role,'' Lankford said, “but with billions of dollars of government waste, we must find a way to pay for the essential areas of government by making cuts to non-essential programs.”
Windfall for Oklahoma
Inhofe is the top Republican on the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over the highway bill. He was chairman of that panel when the last long-term highway bill passed in 2005 — legislation that included thousands of earmarks and a huge funding windfall for Oklahoma.
That bill expired in 2009, and Congress has procrastinated since, granting only temporary extensions that have frustrated state highway officials. The latest extension ends on June 30. House and Senate negotiators are hoping to beat that deadline with a bill, rather than another short-term fix.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, the lead Senate negotiator, told reporters last week that lawmakers were “making good progress.”
“I would say great progress,” she said, adding that 80 percent of the bill was non-controversial.
Inhofe said Boxer was “overly enthusiastic and overly optimistic, and I tell her that to her face and to other people because I want people to know the truth about this — it's not all that easy.”
One of the main sticking points is how to pay for the bill; one of the others is the Keystone XL pipeline.
Funding and Keystone
The Highway Trust Fund, which holds the proceeds from the federal gas tax, is the primary source of money for U.S. road and bridge construction. But money flowing into the fund has been declining while construction costs have been rising, and Congress has had to dip into the funds that pay for domestic programs and defense to make up the difference.
Inhofe has no problem with that. He is a fiscal conservative, he often says, except when it comes to defense and infrastructure.
But many conservatives do have a problem with it and have opposed using general fund money. House Republicans authored a highway bill that would have cut spending on roads and bridges by 34 percent — meaning a loss of $800 million to Oklahoma over six years. Gary Ridley, Oklahoma's transportation director, said a cut of that magnitude would jeopardize critical highway projects in the state — and lives.
Inhofe is now trying to get House conservatives to support legislation that would keep funding at status quo levels without adding to the national debt. To do that, lawmakers must find cuts in funding or revenues elsewhere.
Said Lankford, “Setting funding levels for a bill and actually finding a way to pay for a bill are two different things. I am committed to reforming the transportation system through streamlining the process and increasing local authority and flexibility, wherever possible.”
One of the sweeteners for House Republicans leery of the bill is a provision that would effectively approve the Keystone XL pipeline segment from Canada to Nebraska over the Obama administration's objections.
Inhofe is a strong supporter of the pipeline and has harshly criticized President Barack Obama for rejecting its construction.
In an interview, he said, he would be the last person to give up on the pipeline in the highway bill. But he also said he didn't want the pipeline to kill the bill. The question is whether House Republicans will drop the Keystone provision if it continues to be a major sticking point.
“I feel confident we're going to get the Keystone thing anyway,” Inhofe said. “What I don't want to do is have that take down the transportation bill. As strongly as I feel about (the pipeline), it isn't worth losing the bill.”