CHICAGO — In contrast to the hundreds of pieces of legislation that cleave Congressional Republicans and Democrats, the one that pays for transportation projects has traditionally drawn a warm embrace from both parties, largely because of the giant piles of cash it bestows on states and communities to repair and maintain their roads, bridges and transit systems.
So it was noteworthy that three House members — two Republicans and a Democrat, all from Illinois — gathered here for a news conference this week to denounce the latest House transportation bill, one championed by the House speaker, John A. Boehner.
The three, like scores of Democrats and a fair number of Republicans, were particularly rankled by the bill’s plan to stop the 30-year practice of putting aside 20 percent of the highway trust fund dollars for public transit, which is a crucial mode of getting around in many areas of the country.
“Suburban commuters and motorists, who pay millions in federal fuel taxes, deserve a transportation bill that is responsive to their needs,” said Representative Judy Biggert, a Republican from the Chicago suburbs, as Representative Robert Dold, a Republican freshman, and Representative Daniel Lipinski, a moderate Democrat, looked on with approval.
With support for their highway bill crumbling, Republican leaders spent much of a weeklong Congressional recess considering a variety of changes to the bill, including shortening it and thus its price tag, and restoring transit financing, with the hope of blunting the biggest objections and securing the bill’s passage in the coming weeks.
The call from on high for changes was an unusual move for Mr. Boehner, who has given extensive latitude to committee chairmen.
But 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.
He continually notes that fuel-efficient cars have caused the highway trust fund to diminish in recent years, and that priorities have had to shift. “In the past people were bought off with earmarks or some special provisions,” he told reporters recently. “We don’t have that luxury.”
But members from both parties said that had Mr. Mica consulted more with his committee members, the train wreck that ensued might have been avoided. “This bill was not done in an open manner,” said Mr. Lipiniski, a member of the committee, in an interview after the news conference in Chicago. “And I think there was a real misunderstanding of where Republicans would be.”
The bill began as something of the brainchild of Mr. Boehner, who over his career has never voted for the highway bill, because it has historically been stuffed with earmarks; the last one passed by Congress had over 6,300 such projects. He wanted a bill that would be, for the first time in memory, free of such pet home-state projects, that would contain reforms, and would streamline the approval process for federal projects and tie in the cornerstone of the Republican energy agenda: more drilling.
From almost the minute the bill was introduced to the public, it seemed less like the star of the legislative season, as Republican leaders had hoped, than a celebrity caught in Starbucks wearing pajamas and no makeup.
Mr. Mica held an outdoor news conference with only Republicans, half-joked that he would take only friendly questions from reporters, and squirmed as Representative Don Young of Alaska complained that it was “difficult for me not to have earmarks.”
Mr. LaHood’s comments came next as conservatives piled on from the other side. The bill then endured an 18-hour, rancorous committee hearing that ended in a middle-of-the-night vote approving the measure, with one Republican, Representative Tom Petri of Wisconsin rejecting it. “It was going to be cutting funding for my state by $100 million a year,” Mr. Petri, who is serving his 17th term, said in an interview on Friday. “So it wasn’t a jobs bill for my state.”
As the vote in the House neared and criticism mounted, Republicans scrambled, breaking the bill into three parts. The committee charged with setting the rules for the vote canceled its own meeting on the measure literally in the middle of debate. “This bill is awful,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts.
In a final blow, one of the key forms of paying for the bill, a provision to have federal employees pay more into their pensions, was used instead to help pay for the extension of unemployment benefits, and the bill was postponed in its entirety until after the recess.
Even with Mr. Boehner’s potential changes to the bill, it would still face an uphill battle in the Senate, where members have their own more modest bill to extend current financing. That measure, a bipartisan effort between Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, and Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, has been bedeviled by a host of unrelated amendments. It does not have a drilling component.