In recent days, Congressional Republicans have signaled some welcome flexibility on highway funding. With the federal Highway Trust Fund about to run out of money, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, indicated that the GOP was open to raising the gasoline tax to generate more dollars for highway construction.
“I don’t think we take anything off the table at this point,” Thune, who now chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, told Fox News on Sunday. In mid-week, Senator Jim Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, agreed, saying he didn’t consider the gas levy a tax per se, but rather a user fee. As chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Inhofe will be a key figure in writing a new highway bill. Meanwhile, when asked about the issue recently, House Speaker John Boehner, though expressing some doubts, didn’t slam the door.
That openness reflects this reality: With the nation’s roads and bridges in poor shape, many Republicans, like most Democrats, want more highway work done. And whether one considers it a tax or a user fee, the levy on gas and diesel fuel provides almost all the federal dollars for that purpose. So if the GOP could find its way to agreeing to an increase — particularly now, when a big decline in gas prices make it easier to accommodate without hurting consumers — it would be a very positive development.
But even as those Republicans have inched toward that possibility, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been shaking his head no. “We all know we are not going to pass a gas tax increase,” McConnell told conservative journalist Fred Barnes in a recent interview.
It’s hard to know exactly where this will end up. But if McConnell ends up blocking a highway-funding fix other conservative are okay with, it will undermine his claim to be looking for areas where the GOP and the Obama administration can work together.