TRANSPORTATION:

Highway Trust Fund in fast lane for House floor vote early this week

With Congress again on a collision course with the calendar, the House is poised to vote as early as tomorrow on a stopgap measure to avert highway spending cuts that could otherwise begin hitting states next month.

The bill, H.R. 5021, would set aside almost $11 billion to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent through next May. After the House Ways and Means Committee approved the legislation last Thursday on a voice vote, the House Rules Committee has scheduled a meeting late this afternoon to set the terms of floor debate.

Passage by the Republican-controlled House is almost certain. After the committee vote, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the bill's sponsor, urged the Senate to follow suit quickly.

"There is no need to jeopardize critical road and transit projects, let alone the thousands of jobs they provide," Camp said in a statement.

The trust fund's road building account is on course to run dry around the end of next month, according to the Department of Transportation. If lawmakers don't approve a patch before leaving on their August break, DOT officials intend to begin rationing payments to states soon after.

Although House Democrats agree on the need for a stopgap fix, they were quick to accuse the GOP of failing to pursue a longer-term highway and transit bill that could provide reliable funding for years to come. Instead, Republicans "are talking about a mini-bill until next year, to kick the can a little bit, not even down the road, but down the path," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters at a news conference.

Democrats are likely to raise that argument in this week's floor debate. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who unsuccessfully offered an amendment during the Ways and Means markup intended to prod Congress to act on a long-term bill by December, said afterwards that he would talk to Democratic leaders about using a motion to recommit the bill "to put us on record to get our job done now."

A Pelosi spokesman declined to comment Friday on that option. Democrats could also highlight a recently introduced bill by Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sander Levin (D-Mich.) that would pay for a $19.5 billion trust fund infusion by curbing U.S. corporations' ability to move their legal headquarters overseas to cut their tax bills.

The legislation solves two problems, Levin said in a news release: It "prevents U.S. corporations from avoiding their fair share of taxes through a change in address, and it uses those dollars to fund transportation projects and create jobs here in the U.S."

The Democrats' bill is now in the Ways and Means Committee, where it has little, if any, chance of getting a hearing. To find the "offsets" needed under congressional budget scoring rules, Camp's bill instead resorts to an extension in some customs fees, a transfer from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund, and a tactic known as "pension smoothing" that temporarily lowers the amount of money that companies must pay into their retirement plans as a way of increasing their taxable income.

As time runs short to send a bill to President Obama, the GOP's argument for approval hinges on the fact that all three approaches have previously received bipartisan support in both chambers. Not only are lawmakers already familiar with them, Camp said last week, but "they are the only policies that will pass both the House and Senate in time to fund the trust fund after the end of this month."

Camp did, however, offer what Democrats viewed as a concession. In January, Levin and other Ways and Means Democrats had asked him to schedule a hearing on transportation financing issues. At the markup, Camp said he would hold a hearing "on a long-term solution" for the trust fund.

Twitter: @SeanatGreenwire | Email: sreilly@eenews.net

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