By Deborah Barfield Berry
Congress passed a temporary transportation bill this week that does not include a provision to steer billions in oil spill fine money to the Gulf Coast, but lawmakers from the region, including Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Steve Scalise, plan to continue the push for such legislation.
Before leaving for a two-week recess, the House and Senate approved a 90-day extension of transportation funding, preventing a shutdown of the highway program.
Earlier versions of House and Senate bills had included some provisions of the Restore Act, which would send 80 percent of the fine money from the BP oil spill to the Gulf Coast for restoration efforts. Lawmakers estimate fines could range from $5 billion to $20 billion.
The Senate version would have extended highway funding for two years and included the Restore Act. But when the House was unable to come up with a long-term plan and settled for the three-month extension, the Senate went along with the temporary approach. Lawmakers will try to come up with a transportation bill when they return from recess.
"The Senate did its job. The House should have done the same," said Landrieu, a Democrat and original cosponsor of the Restore Act. "But Republicans couldn't even come up with a bill their own party could agree on."
Landrieu blasted Republican House leaders for not taking up the Senate version. She said the lack of action jeopardizes jobs in the region and efforts to restore the ecosystem. She called on Gulf Coast lawmakers to use their leverage and put pressure on Congress to pass the measure.
"Step up and make your voices heard to get this bill passed," she said.
Some House lawmakers, however, said the transportation bill was not intended to be the vehicle for the Restore Act.
Florida Republican Jeff Miller said the House bill passed Thursday was "simply a short-term" extension.
"Congress will still have to pass a longer-term measure and we will continue to work to make sure the bill retains the Restore Act," said Miller.
Landrieu and others, including Miller and Scalise, a Republican and lead sponsor of the bill in the House, vowed to continue to fight. "I'm going to go home and I'm going to work harder to explain to the people of our region how much is at stake," she said.
Scalise's office said the congressman will continue to talk to party leaders about getting a bill on the floor.
"We've always known that there's more than one way to get this bill to the president's desk," said Stephen Bell, a spokesman for Scalise. "While the House and Senate continue to work out their differences on a highway bill, this extension is a necessary measure that keeps negotiations alive."
Gulf Coast lawmakers had hoped Congress would approve the Restore Act by April 20, the second anniversary of the BP oil spill that devastated coastal states. They say the funding is important to help restore the region's economy and environment.
"For us, time is of the essence for the Gulf Coast states," said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La. "We should put a priority on it and sacrifice some other things to make sure we get the Restore Act through. For Louisiana, you're talking about long-term stability."
Under the bill, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council also would get money to craft a comprehensive environmental recovery effort.
Other funding would go to the five states based on a formula that considers state needs and damage caused by the spill.
About 5 percent of the fine money would go to the National Endowment for the Oceans for research, including studies of the spill's effects.
Landrieu and other lawmakers, including Republicans, had high hopes of moving the Restore Act in the transportation bill.
"We don't have a Plan B," Landrieu said earlier in the week. "If we need to come up with a Plan B we will."