WASHINGTON -- Senate leaders pleaded Wednesday for the House to pass a transportation bill before funding for thousands of projects across the country run out of money in three days.
The Senate has already passed a two-year, $109 billion bill, but the House has been stuck trying to move anything, first failing to come up with the five-year plan that its leaders initially favored and then failing repeatedly this week to pass stop-gap extensions.
"We are moving towards a very dangerous moment here, and I believe we are already in danger," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
"Should we reach March 31 without passing a bill, states' contract authority for construction projects will cease; 2.9 million jobs will be put at great risk," warned Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
"The states are not in a very good situation," Boxer added, noting that states don't have the funds to keep transportation projects going themselves. "That's why we're already seeing thousands of jobs being lost. For every hour that they dither over there in the House instead of taking the bipartisan bill up, which could pass ... every day it gets worse and worse."
House Democrats also favor passing the Senate measure and have refused to back the short-term bills supported by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). With 242 Republicans in his caucus, Boehner still hasn't gathered the 218 votes needed to pass something.
Boehner's spokesman, Michael Steel, argued that House Democrats should sign on to a stop-gap extension to make up the vote gap and keep the money flowing. He predicted they would at the last minute.
"The Democrats said they would not accept a 90-day extension but would accept a 60-day extension," Steel emailed. "So the plan is to pass a 60-day extension this week. The process by which the House passes a 60-day extension is up to the Democratic leadership. It's their choice as to whether to work in a bipartisan fashion, or play political games with our country's economy."
A Democratic aide familiar with talks on the bill said that the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), never agreed to a 60-day extension. The aide was not authorized to speak for Rahall.
Schumer insisted that Boehner couldn't pass anything of any length, except the Senate bill.
"Once again we're facing the specter of an unnecessary shutdown because of the intransigence of the House GOP caucus," Schumer said, arguing that Boehner's problem is that his more conservative members don't really want a transportation bill and would rather leave such matters to the states.
"Speaker Boehner has once again been painted in a corner by his Tea Party caucus," said Schumer, predicting, as Democrats have before, that the GOP is headed for another damaging moment that could be avoided, much like the standoff over a payroll tax cut this past winter.
"This is like payroll tax 2," Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said. "We're about to see it now again, and all we're doing is jeopardizing the folks in this country and the jobs that are being created."
Schumer called the answer obvious. "There's an easy way out that already has the stamp of approval from some of the most conservative people in Congress, Senate Republicans," he said, noting that the Senate bill received 74 votes. "He [Boehner] could pass the Senate bill, plain and simple -- a simple way out, bipartisan, does the job."
GOP leaders announced later that the House Rules Committee would meet Wednesday evening to prepare another attempt at a 90-day extension. It was not immediately clear if the new measure would be any different from the earlier one that failed or if leaders were counting on time pressure to win passage.
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Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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