It took a lot of whining, but the Senate finally passed its two-year, $109 billion surface transportation bill last week on a solidly bipartisan 74-22 vote. The bill won praise from the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AAA and the AFL-CIO. No one thinks that it's perfect, but it would smooth out some of the current kinks in the federal highway program and give the transportation industry certainty that they won't face federal cuts for two years.
And yet...there are still some people who don't like it, and many of them are in the House. A GOP aide told me that Republican members see the Senate bill as "a crap sandwich that they're going to have eat" if they can't come up with an alternative. (That's proving to be something of a problem. House Speaker John Boehner has tried multiple options without getting his caucus to coalesce around one.) Outside the Capitol, Heritage Action for America, a right-wing grassroots group, considered a "no" vote on the Senate bill a "key vote" in determining whether a legislator is sticking to conservative principles.
Conservatives are worried about a "spending boondoggle," which reflects their general anxiety about federal investment. They are also worried that the Senate bill preserves too much of the previous highway bill, which was loaded with earmarks. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., claims there is even an earmark in the Senate bill for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid hasn't commented.
All this is to say that there is a wing of the conservative party that is gung ho about killing the Senate bill. For them, the legislation involves broader questions about federal spending and how Congress acted in previous years using earmarks and other special favors.
That's a lot of ideology for a wonky policy bill to handle. Will it survive? Is it a spending boondoggle? Is it too much like the previous highway bill? Is this the appropriate legislation for conservatives to use in waging their battle on big government? How much impact do these arguments have?