Why a House Republican is pushing for something his party hates — a tax hike

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — Ohio Republican Congressman Jim Renacci is doing something his party hates — pushing a plan to raise taxes.

The former CPA and mayor is frustrated Congress is going to kick the can — for the 33rd time — on coming up with a way to pay to fix the tens of thousands of crumbling roads and bridges across the country.

Instead of voting for the 60-day highway bill extension House GOP leaders will put on the floor on Tuesday, he's proposing legislation that increases the current gas tax to pay for the program until the end of 2016 and forces Congress to come up with a plan.

"In good conscience I can't put the liability for these roads and bridges on our children and grandchildren," Renacci told CNN in an interview in his office in the Cannon building on Capitol Hill last week.

He said raiding the Treasury Department's general fund, which is what is happening now, is akin to increasing taxes because it adds to the national debt. He also called the gas tax a "user fee" and argued raising it temporarily is the most appropriate way to fund transportation needs.

The federal Highway Trust Fund, which covers a major chunk of the costs for state and local transportation construction projects, doesn't pay for Amtrak upgrades. But the deadly train derailment in Philadelphia last week did put a spotlight on the funding Congress approves for infrastructure projects.

Renacci pointed to studies showing nearly 70,000 bridges are deemed structurally deficient and worries that it takes an emergency for Congress to act on things.

"I hate to say this, I hope we don't see a collapse," he said.

Even before Renacci's unveiled his plan last month, House Republican leaders already dismissed the idea of increasing the gas tax to raise more money for highways. House Speaker John Boehner said he's never voted to increase the gas tax and doubted there were the votes to get any hike through the House.

But Renacci sees the recent bipartisan agreement to address payments to reimburse Medicare doctors as a model for Congress finally saying enough is enough with temporary fixes. So far, eight other Republicans and 22 Democrats have signed on. And although he concedes he number for formal supporters is low, the Ohio Republican says many of his GOP colleagues privately tell him what he's proposing is reasonable.

"I have yet for anyone tell me it's bad policy. I've had many people tell me they're concerned about the politics of it," the Ohio Republican said.

The current gas tax — 18.4 cents per gallon — pays for the Highway Trust Fund, but it hasn't been altered since 1993 and the income now isn't nearly enough to cover the growing backlog of projects. The development of more fuel-efficient cars has also made that tax less effective way to raise the money needed for them.

The problem is massive.

The American Society of Civil Engineers' publishes a report card on the nation's roads, bridges, dams and rail systems; overall, the U.S. received a D+ in the 2013 study, the most recent. The group estimates that an investment of $3.6 trillion is needed by the year 2020 to boost that score to a B.

The idea behind the bipartisan plan is to stop the string of short-term fixes and direct Congress to develop a steady source of revenue for infrastructure needs. If Capitol Hill can't agree on a plan, the bill includes a hammer — more increases in the gas tax — something Renacci thinks is a good incentive to bring both Democrats and Republicans to the table.

The legislation indexes the current gas tax to inflation to keep the highway program running through December 2016. A bipartisan, bicameral commission is created to debate the various ideas for paying for infrastructure needs and the bill requires that Congress vote on the recommendations from the panel by the fall of 2016.

If Congress fails to approve a long-term solution then the gas tax would be hiked again to a level that could sustain the program for another three years. If over the next three years Congress still can't agree on an infrastructure plan, then the gas tax would go up again to fund the Highway Trust Fund for another five years. Altogether the bill sets a stream of funding estimated to sustain the highway program for 10 years.

Renacci doesn't prescribe his own answer for the broader solution, and has heard roughly 20 different ideas. He said the only way to find one that both the House and Senate can agree on is to create the commission and threaten the penalty of more taxes if it fails to deliver.

The last time Congress proposed as similar solution was the so-called "Super Committee," which failed to come up with a budget deal. Now both parties are struggling to live under the automatic spending cuts that process put in place.

But Renacci thinks his plan will actually come up with a deal because both sides won't want to be blamed for a higher gas tax if they can't.

According to calculations based on the number of drivers and miles covered, Renacci's office says the cost to the average U.S. driver is roughly $2.83 cents per year.

"Most people will go buy a cup of coffee or a latte for much more than $2.83 every day, so that's how reasonable that is," Renacci stresses.

The bill came out of months of discussions in Ohio and Washington with a wide range of interest groups -- businesses, mayors, county planners, but also local tea party groups. Renacci told CNN the message about not leaving the costs to future generations came out of a session with tea party leaders.

But he knows being the Republican ring leader of an effort to raise taxes could draw a campaign challenge from the right, and possibly the loss of his seat in the House, but doesn't seem fazed by either scenario.

"If that occurs, that occurs. I'm never going to worry about a challenge for doing the right thing," the Ohio Republican said. "It's easy to sit here in Washington and do nothing. I'd rather be somebody who is going to get something accomplished."

As a four-year veteran of Congress, Renacci says there are three types of members — those who came to Washington to fight to make a difference, those become part of the problem and those who quit.

He says he's disappointed some of his friends from the class of 2010 that ushered in the GOP majority have already quit, mostly because they were frustrated with the gridlock.

"It's a difficult place to fight — there are a lot of things that are set in their ways after 200 years, so my hope is that many of us who came in 2010 will continue to fight and don't quit," Renacci said wistfully.

He predicts there will be more members — both Democrats and Republicans — voting 'no' on this latest punt on the highway bill than on last year's bill.

And though it may not be this week, Renacci says eventually leaders will be forced to find a long term solution.

Copyright 2015 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Deirdre Walsh Senior Congressional Producer


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