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Transportation Bill Worth $109 Billion Stalls In Senate Fight Over Amendments (UPDATE)

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Sens. Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.
Sens. Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.

WASHINGTON -- A transportation bill worth $109 billion and an estimated 3 million jobs stalled in the Senate on Tuesday amid battles over amendments that have little or nothing to do with transportation.

Efforts to begin considering the measure were delayed by a failed 52-44 vote to end debate, when 60 votes were required.

Republican sources said that their side had settled on the amendments they want -- including certain unrelated ones -- but that Democrats could not agree on their amendments. Democrats declined to elaborate.

However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said before the vote that it was time to move ahead and blamed the GOP for pushing a stack of amendments that would, among other things, ease air pollution restrictions on incinerators.

"I am, for lack of a better word, disappointed," Reid said.

"These amendments are going to do nothing to advance the work product of almost 3 million Americans -- none of them. We should just invoke cloture," he added, using the technical phrase for ending debate. "I ask my Republican colleagues, 'Break this impasse, do something that is good for the American people, invoke cloture. Stop a filibuster, another one.'"

For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested Democrats were as much to blame for the hold-up and predicted the bill will get passed.

"I would point out there are demands for amendments on both sides here," McConnell said. "We're very close to getting an agreement. And I think a 'no' vote on cloture is not the end of this bill but the beginning, and it gives us an opportunity to go on and wrap up discussions that have gone on entirely too long, it seems to me.

"I know the majority leader's been frustrated by it, and so have I. But we're very close to getting an agreement on a list of amendments and should be able to finish this bill by the end of the week," McConnell added.

Reid was still peeved, though, and complained specifically about environmental and oil-drilling amendments.

"These amendments deal with clean water standards, deal with clean air standards," Reid said.

"Nothing in this bill should deal with having Americans having to breathe more mercury, more lead. And then just for good measure, how about some arsenic?" he complained. "The amendment that I've looked at from my friend from Louisiana [Sen. David Vitter (R)] calls for drilling for oil any place there's water. Next they'll be going to Lake Meade outside Las Vegas."

Democrats had predicted that Republicans would obstruct the bill, especially in the House, and suggested they would face political consequences for doing so.

Reid argued that the first consequence would be fallout from putting thousands of people out of work after the current transportation act expires on March 31.

"It will be April Fool's Day for a lot of people in America because we will lose almost 800,000 jobs on April 1," Reid said. "Why can't we get seven Republicans to break from the pack over here and say not everything we do has to be an arm-wrestling contest?"

UPDATE: 5:38 p.m. -- On the House side, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday that simply passing the Senate bill would be "an option" in the lower chamber.

That could represent a major setback for Boehner's 2012 agenda. House Republicans had titled their transportation bill the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act and signaled that it would be one of their few attempts at major legislation before the election. Boehner argued in November that the House bill would "create millions of jobs," while chiding Harry Reid's chamber for failing to consider "dozens of bills" to address unemployment, "most of which are sitting in the United States Senate."

But the House may be forced to take action on a Senate bill, and Democrats are crowing.

"Now that the Speaker has publicly signaled he is willing to buck his conservative bloc and give the Senate bill a vote, momentum is on our side," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a statement. "Senate Republicans have no reason to drag this out any longer."

Still, at least one analyst was skeptical that Boehner, who has struggled to keep his rambunctious caucus in order, would be able to muster enough support from Tea Party freshmen to move the Senate bill through his chamber. Although Reid may be moving to add natural gas subsidies to the Senate bill, it doesn't include other conservative "sweeteners" like more offshore drilling.

"Can Boehner/[House Transportation Chairman John] Mica sell the Senate bill as going far enough? That it's as far as they can go and still enact something?" asked Larry Ehl, publisher of Transportation Issues Daily.

The speaker has only until March 31 -- when the current transportation legislation expires -- to answer that question.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article undervalued the transportation legislation as a $19 billion bill. It is a $109 billion bill.

Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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