With threats that the spigot for transportation funding was about to squeeze shut, the House punted the politically charged issue back to the Senate on Thursday and then prepared to head home for a five-week recess.
House Republicans hoped to force the Senate’s hand in a matter that could have long-term implications for the nation’s transportation policy. The action Thursday was a simple partisan chess game between the two houses over stop-gap funding that would keep about 6,000 state highway and transit projects rolling through the year. Without a quick patch, the federal Highway Trust Fund that provides federal cash for those jobs is forecast to run in the red beginning Friday.
“States will lose in the course of the next week 28 percent of their funding,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) told reporters.
The House passed an almost $11 billion stop-gap measure on July 15. On Tuesday, the Senate gutted that bill, inserted its own funding plan and deadline and sent it back to the House. On Thursday, the House voted 272 to 150 to restore its own language and deadline, sent that to the Senate and went home.
That appeared to leave the Senate with two options: accept the House terms or allow cash to states to slow during the height of the summer construction season.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), ranking member on the House transportation committee, acknowledged that on the floor Thursday, saying he reluctantly would vote in favor of the House action.
“It’s not because this is a better approach,” he said, referring to the House bill. “But it does provide the only path forward.”
The subplot to the jousting is the larger issue of when Congress will take up a long-term transportation bill — and which party will control Congress when that happens. The current bill that sets policy expires Oct. 1. And the question of how to pay for a new bill is unresolved.
Democrats read the polls and fear they may lose the Senate in November. They want Congress to come up with a six-year Senate bill and resolve the funding dilemma in the lame-duck session. Republicans hope to gain the Senate next year and want to set a May 31 deadline for the task.
If Republicans control both houses next year, they may reshape transportation funding to reflect the philosophy held by many of their members. Many Republicans believe it’s time for Washington to step aside, a process known as devolution that allows states to raise and spend transportation money unfettered by federal restraint.
Democrats believe that the federal government should continue to play a central role in transportation planning and funding.
With a presidential election taking wing next year, some in Congress think that may stall progress on any transportation measure that demands new or different taxes.
“Everyone knows what we’re doing,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said on the House floor, forecasting a series of extensions rather than passage of a long-term transportation bill. “We don’t have the guts to help our states get on with urgently needed projects.”
The failure in courage, according to many observers outside Congress, is a long-standing inability to address the fact that the Highway Trust Fund no longer brings in enough money from gas taxes to pay its bills.
None of the proposals for a permanent funding fix is universally popular with an election looming in November. They include increasing the gas tax and indexing it to inflation, giving tax breaks to U.S. corporations that have billons parked offshore to encourage them to bring those billions back, reforming corporate tax laws, diverting income-tax dollars to transportation, taxing fuel at the refinery rather than the pump, allowing more tolls on interstates and charging people for every mile they drive.
The Senate undermined its own strategy this week with a drafting error that left a $2 billion hole in the bill that it passed Tuesday.