Thursday, March 1, 2012

Miscarriage of Transportation Bill

The controversy over access to contraception first sparked by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act law now in Congress, again. Republicans tried to add an amendment to a highway in the Senate that would allow employers to opt out of a new federal health-care mandate for their employees if they have religious objections. The bill suffered a miscarriage on the Blunt Amendment.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday afternoon expressed frustration on the Senate floor regarding the slow progress of the transportation bill, but also noted small signs of progress.

“Today with the failure to advance the Blunt amendment, the Senate completed an important step to try to advance this bill,” he said.

Reid also made a procedural move, attaching to the bill an amendment that includes 37 technical changes recommended by the relevant committees.

The issue goes to the heart of the culture wars, also roiling the GOP presidential primary. 

“This issue gets right at the heart of who we are as a people,” said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, in an opening floor speech on Thursday.  “It is not in the power of the federal government to tell anybody what to believe or to punish them for practicing those beliefs,” he added.

But Democrats say the highway bill shouldn’t become a venue for the contraception issue.

“This legislation is too important to be bogged down by political amendments,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada in a floor speech on Thursday.

By a largely party-line vote, the Senate on Thursday blocked a move to exempt virtually any employer with moral objections from the Obama administration’s controversial birth control health coverage rule.

The measure, an amendment proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to a highway funding bill, was tabled—and therefore effectively killed—by a vote of 51 to 48.

Since it was presented last month by Representative John L. Mica of Florida, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the bill, a centerpiece of the House Republicans’ jobs agenda, has unraveled like a cheap sweater, with conservatives and liberals pulling equally hard on its threads. The assault illustrated again the difficulties of passing legislation in the divided Congress, even popular bills.

On the left, there has been deep criticism over the addition of oil drilling projects, including a proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a proposal that has divided Congress for years.

Further, the bill would reduce spending on some safety programs, zeroing out, for instance, the Safe Routes to School, a program that encourages biking and walking.

On the right, some groups and members were aghast at the $260 billion price tag, and argued that transportation should no longer be a federal priority. “We look forward to evaluating the House Republicans’ new proposal,” said Chris Chocola, the president of the conservative economic advocacy group Club for Growth, “which should simply devolve responsibility for highway spending back to the states.”

Members of both parties have assailed the legislation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican former congressman, called the bill “the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service” and “the most antisafety bill I have ever seen.”

Mr. Mica has appeared at times befuddled, annoyed and saddened by the criticisms of his bill, which would replace the current temporary extension, the eighth since a $286 billion, multi-year plan ended in 2009.

No left No Right Just the Highway to Their Way

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