In a sign of just how bad congressional dysfunction has gotten, Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked the advancement of a transportation bill, a piece of legislation that traditionally has enjoyed broad bipartisan support.
The vote was 52-44, short of the 60 needed to take up the bill.
"I don’t know why everything we do has to be a fight," lamented Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that the parties are close to an agreement on amendments that would be brought up for consideration.
Last week Republicans tried to tack on a measure that would have allowed employers to opt out of new federal rules requiring insurance companies to offer certain services, including contraceptive care, on religious grounds. It failed.
Advancing the legislation in the Senate was seen as a crucial step, as House Speaker John A. Boehner struggled to corral votes in that chamber in the face of a backlash against federal spending.
Democratic leaders are portraying the standoff as another showdown led by right-flank conservatives.
"What we’re seeing on the highway bill is a repeat of the payroll tax cut debate," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), referring to the recent battle to extend the reduction in Social security payroll taxes for the rest of 2012. "It’s time for Republicans to stop letting the far right call the shots.”
Transportation bills have traditionally been among the most popular pieces of legislation, often passing with strong bipartisan support.
This year’s efforts have been seen by supporters as jobs legislation critical to boosting the nation’s still-sluggish economy by saving or creating up to 3 million jobs. It includes a provision eagerly sought by Los Angeles officials to speed expansion of the region’s public transit system and would fund politically popular traffic-easing projects.
But detractors, particularly conservatives, are resisting its costs at a time when lawmakers are focused on deficit reduction. Even though the legislation is a priority for Boehner, Republicans have been forced to rewrite their bill after a rebellion within their ranks over a variety of issues, including its five-year $260-billion price tag.
“The bill before the Senate spends more than we can afford,” wrote Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), in an op-ed Tuesday in the Washington Post. “If we fail this small test, how will we ever pass a sweeping agreement to cut the deficit?”
Republicans in the Senate said Tuesday they had agreed to a “reasonable” list of amendments, according to a GOP leadership aide, but Democrats had not yet signed off on the deal.
Rejection of the legislation might spur both sides to come to the table.
A major challenge facing congressional leaders is trying to maintain the current level of funding for popular road projects without adding to the federal budget deficit.
Thanks to consumers buying more fuel-efficient cars, the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax isn’t bringing in enough money to maintain the current level of funding, requiring lawmakers to find money elsewhere.
And with Congress ending the practice of lawmakers earmarking funds for pet projects, leaders have limited opportunities to dole out incentives to bring in votes. Earmarking helped win votes for bills in the past but sparked a public outcry after the last big transportation bill, in 2005, was filled with thousands of earmarks, including Alaska's "bridge to nowhere.’’
"Do any of you have any idea how difficult it is to do a transportation bill without earmarks?" House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said earlier this year.
"It's a lot harder to win votes when you don't have goodies to pass out,’’ Boehner recently acknowledged.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who as chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is leading the bill through the debate, recently told her colleagues that, with broad support from a range of organizations including labor unions and the Chamber of Commerce, "There is no reason for us not to get this done.”