* Extension would fund projects past Nov. elections
* No Republican decision on oil pipeline in extension
* Democrats accuse Republicans of stalling on jobs measure
By David Lawder
WASHINGTON, June 7 Signaling that hopes for a
deal on a transportation construction bill may be fading, U.S.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner on Thursday
floated the idea of a six-month extension of current funding to
push the issue past the November elections.
Boehner told reporters that if House and Senate negotiators
fail to agree on new long-term funding by June 30, when the
latest stop-gap authority for road, bridge and rail transit
projects expires, he would not want another short-term
"Frankly, I think if we get to June 30, there would be a
six-month extension and move this thing out of the political
realm that it appears to be in at this moment," Boehner said.
The fight in Congress over the transportation bill is one of
several being waged between Democrats and Republicans on
high-profile issues, with each side trying to gain the upper
hand in their bids to win re-election on Nov. 6.
The highway bill is particularly important as it would
authorize major job-creating construction projects across the
United States at a time when the economic recovery is losing
steam and jobs are the top issue for voters.
Democrats stepped up their accusations that Republicans were
"stalling" the transport measure and other jobs-focused
legislation in an effort to keep the economy weak and undermine
Obama's re-election hopes.
"For months the congressional Republicans have worked
against any piece of legislation that might create jobs or spur
economic growth," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the
"Congressional Republicans' No. 1 goal isn't to improve the
economy or create jobs, it's to defeat President Obama," added
Reid, a Democrat.
In a sign of his pessimism about the highway bill, Reid sent
Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell a letter on
Thursday offering to use part of the measure's funding mechanism
to pay for a separate, $6 billion bill to keep student loan
interest rates from doubling.
Boehner said he still wanted agreement on a long-term
transport bill - a measure he once touted as his signature jobs
But House members are preparing to depart from Washington
for another recess next week, leaving just two weeks to reach a
deal, pass it through both chambers and get a signature from
President Barack Obama. Four weeks of haggling so far has
produced little progress on core differences.
"I'm very hopeful that they will get into serious
discussions quickly," Boehner said.
A major sticking point in the House-Senate negotiations over
the two-year, $109 billion transportation bill passed by the
Senate is House Republicans' insistence on including approval of
TransCanada Corp's $7 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Asked whether Boehner would insist on Keystone approval as a
condition of a six-month extension or agree to a "clean"
extension of current law, Boehner's spokesman, Kevin Smith, said
no decisions have been made at this point.
President Barack Obama opposes any move to fast-track the
project until new environmental reviews are completed.
The 1,700-mile (2,736-km) pipeline, which would carry crude
from Canadian oil sands to Texas refineries, was not included in
a compromise offer made by lead Senate negotiators Barbara
Boxer, a Democrat, and James Inhofe, a Republican.
Boehner also has had a difficult time getting his own caucus
to support a transportation bill - even one with Keystone and
new oil drilling rights included - because of its costs. Many
fiscal conservatives backed by the Tea Party movement will not
support a multibillion-dollar spending bill at a time of high
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman
John Mica said House Republicans on Thursday would make a
counter-offer on the Senate plan, adding that negotiations would
continue by conference call during next week's recess.
"Our staffs are negotiating some of the terms of what
hopefully would be a successful conference report," said Mica,
who has typically voiced more optimism about the transportation
bill than has Boehner.
Senator Boxer, the California Democrat, complained that
another extension would exhaust the Highway Trust Fund because
it is currently not collecting enough gasoline taxes to support
current project spending levels. The fund is expected to be
depleted sometime after Oct. 1.
"I am very disappointed that Speaker Boehner is even talking
about a long-term transportation extension, which would lead to
the Highway Trust Fund going bankrupt, when all of our efforts
must be focused on passing a transportation bill by the June
30th deadline, Boxer said in a statement. "Three million jobs
and thousands of businesses are at stake."
Although the current extension is keeping projects going
that have already started, the uncertainty over long-term
funding is hampering states' ability to proceed with long-term
projects, preventing the hiring of hundreds of thousands of
idled construction workers.
Construction was particularly hard-hit in May's dismal U.S.
jobs data released last week, with employment in the sector
falling 28,000 during the month.