Congress gave final approval last night to a Highway Trust Fund bailout, bypassing a crisis that could have jeopardized road-building projects across the country.
Senate passage of the almost $11 billion House-passed measure, H.R. 5021, came on an 81-13 vote a few hours after the House had rejected, 272-150, an amended Senate version that would have changed both the timetable and the funding level.
The final measure, which is supposed to keep the trust fund solvent through May, now goes to President Obama for his signature.
The congressional sign-off arrived one day before Department of Transportation leaders had planned to begin rationing reimbursements to states to keep the trust fund's road-building account from running out of money.
"The good news is that Congress has avoided bankrupting the Highway Trust Fund," DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a news release. "The bad news is that there is still no long-term certainty, and this latest band-aid expires right as the next construction season begins."
Around the country, more than 660,000 jobs and at least 6,000 DOT construction projects would have been at risk if lawmakers had failed to act in time, Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) said in a statement.
But for business and labor groups, relief at the bill's passage was mingled with frustration that the road-building account, responsible for about $40 billion in yearly spending, had been allowed to come so close to insolvency.
"By waiting until the last minute to solve a problem that we've known for years was coming, Congress brought the highway program and the construction industry to the brink of disaster," Brian McGuire, president and CEO of Associated Equipment Distributors, a trade group, said in a statement.
At the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, President Pete Ruane said, "Americans deserve better than this on a core responsibility of the federal government."
Others, like Foxx, suggested that the newly passed bill is merely laying the groundwork for a similar crisis next spring.
Washington politicians "have no idea how highway construction works," said Terry O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers' International Union of North America. "Wait until next May, and another construction season will be lost, more construction workers will sit idle, and our bridges will continue to fall down."
Eyes still on long-term fix
Foxx, O'Sullivan and Ruane urged lawmakers to use the 10-month respite to craft a long-term highway and transit funding bill, a call some that some lawmakers were also quick to take up.
As soon as Congress returns from its five-week August break, "we're going to be reaching out across both sides of the aisle to go to work immediately," Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told reporters after last night's vote.
"My hope and prayer is that we'll all be able to work together and get this job done," Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said on the Senate floor earlier in the evening. "We're not going to go away on this issue."
Carper was the lead architect of the amended version of the bill that would have reduced funding to about $8 billion, with an expiration date of mid-December in hopes of forcing Congress to take up a long-term transportation measure in lame-duck session after the November elections. The amended bill passed the Senate on Tuesday by a surprisingly strong 79-18 margin. It was buoyed by what Carper described at a Wednesday news conference as "a rising tide" of "stakeholder" organizations eager for a stable transportation funding framework.
The result "was kind of a miracle, because everything was working against us," Senate EPW Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told reporters at the same event.
But hopes that the lobbying push by business and labor groups could bring along the House were soon dashed.
Key House Republicans already objected to provisions in the Senate bill that would have partly offset the legislation's cost by increasing tax collections through stronger enforcement. They were also concerned that a lame-duck session was a ploy to push through a federal gas tax hike. The final blow came Wednesday with the disclosure that -- because of a drafting error -- the Senate measure was more than $2 billion short of the other "offsets" needed to keep the bill from adding to the federal budget deficit under congressional scoring rules.
"The Senate approach is deeply flawed," House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in successfully arguing for the Senate plan's rejection.
Not only was the Senate measure not fully offset, Shuster said, but the proposed December funding cutoff guaranteed "a manufactured crisis" during the lame-duck session.
After the House formally rejected the amended bill, the Senate's only options were to accept the House-passed version or risk taking the heat for what Boxer and other Democrats had said would be a "transportation government shutdown."
"It's so unfortunate that the House walked away from the work we did," Boxer said before voting yes. Nonetheless, she added, "we can't walk away from the Highway Trust Fund. We can't let it stagger and fall."
When lawmakers passed MAP-21, the current highway and transit funding law, in 2012, they expected it to provide stable funding for highway and transit programs through its scheduled expiration at the end of September.
But gas tax receipts to the fund have been falling short of spending demands, a DOT spokesman said recently. Although department leaders had been warning of a potential crisis for months, it was only on July 8 that House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) introduced what was essentially the bill given final approval last night.
The pros and cons of the lame-duck plan
For lawmakers and business groups eager for a return to the tradition of a six-year transportation funding framework, the Senate's plan to force lame-duck action seemed like the best chance for winning approval for a gas tax hike or other measure to stabilize the trust fund's shaky finances.
Some observers also saw political forces at work, as handicappers give Republicans an increasingly strong chance of reclaiming the Senate.
Democrats like Carper and Boxer want to be "more relevant," said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Ellis questioned, however, whether a lame-duck session would make it any easier for Congress to approve its first six-year transportation bill since 1998. The idea that Congress will suddenly develop a "spinal implant" is "pretty wishful thinking, in my opinion," Ellis said.
During yesterday's House debate, Republicans noted that their bill didn't preclude passage of a more lasting transportation measure before May and stressed the urgency of a quick fix now.
If the bill didn't pass, more than 700,000 construction jobs would be at risk, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) said during the House debate. While acknowledging that Congress "every now and then" pushes things down the road, "we are truly trying to find a real solution," Mullin said.
"The Senate bill -- it just didn't give us enough time," Mullin said.
In his statement last night, Foxx reiterated that this month he will be convening "a nationwide virtual town hall on transportation ... to bring together business leaders, transportation advocates, state and local government officials, and everyday Americans who are concerned with the future of America's transportation infrastructure."
"Together," Foxx said, "we will keep working for a long-term solution by engaging people throughout America to prompt Congress to act."
Reporter Nick Juliano contributed.
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