Gas Tax Showdown Imperils Highway Bill Extension

Gas Tax Showdown Imperils Highway Bill Extension

The House of Representatives broke into a sharp fight over extending federal highway program spending by three months, as Republican leaders tried to force backers to pledge they would take a motor fuels tax increase out of the next multi-year surface transport bill.

The House needed a two-thirds vote to set aside its normal rules to extend federal funding, which otherwise runs out on Sept. 30 with the end of the government’s fiscal year. But GOP leaders resisted, using the issue to trigger a feisty debate over Democrats’ plans for future transport programs and tax hikes to pay for them.

Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has proposed a new six-year, $500 billion funding bill, partly funded by the first increase in gasoline and diesel taxes since 1993. He has not yet moved it to the full House.

President Obama has asked for an 18-month extension of existing programs until his administration can develop its own transportation policies, and until recently the Senate appeared headed in that direction.

Oberstar countered with a proposed three-month extension, in line with requests by freight industry groups for only a short delay before Congress begins to address long-term transportation funding needs.

But House GOP leaders instead sided with the administration, saying a long extension would prevent a fuel tax hike. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) charged that a three-month continuation of existing programs was “seemingly to buy time” for Oberstar to work out a deal that could lead to higher fuel taxes.

He said a short extension could add uncertainty to construction contractors working on transportation projects around the country, and that Republican leaders wanted a “public rejection” of a gas tax hike to pay for future highway programs.

Oberstar said the sight of GOP leaders siding with the Democratic Obama administration on an 18-month extension of current programs was “the most unusual partnership I’ve ever seen.” The three-month plan contains no tax hike, he added, but gets Congress past the immediate fiscal year deadline.

A number of Republican lawmakers as well as Democratic members spoke on the House floor against letting current programs expire, warning this could freeze $4.5 billion in immediate funding and halt thousands of construction projects in the states.

But Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., ranking minority member on the T&I Committee, said he would like a one-day delay in considering the extension. He said his party leadership did not want to kill the highway programs but wanted “an opportunity to be heard” on the issues.

Oberstar, though, said “the time is now.”

Contact John Boyd at jboyd@joc.com.