WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives approved Thursday a bill that would open up parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Rocky Mountains, and the offshore continental shelf for oil and gas exploration. The bill intended to fund a surface transportation package whose fate hangs in the hands of Republican leaders struggling to find more votes from the conservative wing of their own caucus.
Failure to pass a new transportation bill would represent a major defeat for Republicans. On Tuesday, Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) called it "our only hope -- this is very serious -- of putting people to work in a major piece of legislation this year."
Speaker John Boehner won't get any help from Democrats. The president has promised to veto the bill, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said it would take American infrastructure "back to the dark ages," and Democratic leaders in the House fiercely opposed the drilling bit of the overall package.
"The House Republican transportation bill may be on the skids, but today’s vote makes it clear that nothing can stop the Republican oil company gravy train from chugging along," Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement immediately after the bill passed on a largely party line 237-187 vote.
In an unusual procedural move, Boehner on Tuesday separated his transportation bill -- which initially included the drilling bill, along with a plan to force federal workers to pay more into their retirement accounts, as funding sources for the overall legislation -- into three parts, apparently sensing the bill as a whole would have difficulty making it through his caucus. He has also delayed a vote on the critical transportation portion of the package until the end of February, hoping to scrounge up more votes.
A Senate version of the highway bill is likewise stumbling, with sponsor Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) saying Wednesday that she saw "no path forward" for the bill given several extraneous amendments proposed by Republicans.
Liberals certainly hate the way the House bill is paid for, and the fact that it decouples mass transit funding from federal gas tax revenues. But conservatives may pose a bigger threat for Boehner from within his own caucus: They said that the speaker, who refused to vote for previous highway bills over concerns about pork, has betrayed his pledge to reduce the size of government and muddied the "user pays, user benefits" logic of the federal gas tax with his drilling proposal.
"Prior to this, if you wanted to increase transportation spending, you had to make the argument on raising the gas tax," said Dan Holler, communications director for the Heritage Action Fund. "Washington is constantly seeking new money or new revenue to pay for new things, as opposed to figuring out how the government can spend less."
To make sure Republicans don't slip, Heritage Action has made voting for the transportation segment of the bill a punishable offense on its scorecard, which grades members of Congress on their conservatism.
Conservative activist Daniel Horowitz has been railing against the House bill for weeks on the influential blog RedState. Boehner may have thought the oil and gas provisions would serve as a "sweetener" for conservatives, he said, but he miscalculated badly. Instead, they would simply like to see spending on transportation slashed.
Boehner and Mica said the bill will pay for itself as oil and gas lease revenues start to pour in and pension changes add up. But the Congressional Budget Office has poured cold water on the idea that oil shale exploration in the Rockies, for instance, will bring in significant sums.
"It's really a patchwork of a house of cards, it's not very fiscally responsible," said Horowitz. "A lot of the savings are quite nebulous, and frankly, they come from components that are unlikely to be passed out of the Senate, and even the House."
If push comes to shove, Horowitz said, he would even prefer an extension of the current highway bill, the one that was famously laden with more than 6,000 earmarks, including the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere," in one re-authorization. The bill is set to expire March 31.
"It's better we wait a few months and wait this out than pass a bad bill," he said. His conservative vision of a highway program: send federal gas tax money back to the states and let them decide to do with it. With declining gas tax revenues, that would mean less to be spent on fixing deficient roads and bridges, but conservatives argue that states would be better positioned to determine how to efficiently spend scarcer resources.