Faced with the threat that federal money for 117,000 transportation projects would begin to dry up in two weeks, the House on Tuesday approved a nearly $11 billion patch to extend funding through May.
The stop-gap fix to avert a crisis imperiling up to 700,000 construction jobs won endorsement from the White House, but the Senate is likely to tinker with it before it reaches President Obama’s desk.
The bill, approved by a vote of 367 to 55, would transfer $9.9 billion from the general fund and $1 billion from a separate trust fund into the rapidly dwindling Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to run in the red starting next month.
The general fund transfers would be offset by extending customs fees and a process called pension smoothing, both steps that critics have denounced as gimmicks and “smoke and mirrors.”
“We shouldn’t be paying for filling potholes by creating potholes in Americans’ pensions,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who voted against the bill. “This is not a serious or sustainable response to the challenge of an underfunded highway program. Congress should bite the bullet and do its job.”
The Senate is moving toward its own short-term fix built around those two funding sources and tapping into an array of others. Rather than move forward with that bill, the Senate might amend the House bill to its liking and send it to the White House.
A small but critical difference between the two bills will have to be resolved. The House bill extends funding until May 31; the Senate bill, which contains a similar amount of cash, is open-ended.
Pull back the covers on that discrepancy to uncover a largely partisan divide.
Senate Democrats, who say they have a few silent GOP supporters, insist that a long-term transportation bill must be considered in the post-election lame-duck session. They say that extending the funding window until June could make transportation a pawn next year in larger debates about the debt ceiling or a continuing resolution on the federal budget.
House Republicans, with support from several GOP senators, including Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), favor giving the new Congress time to find its legs before tackling transportation.
The nub of the controversy is who will control the Senate after the November election. Democrats think they will retain it. Republicans think they may gain it.
If the GOP takes control of the Senate, they are sure to want to modify the six-year transportation proposal that won the approval of 10 Democrats and eight Republicans on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in May.
Some Republicans, particularly in the House, would like to de-couple funding for transit systems from the Highway Trust Fund, reserving the money for road and bridge projects. They also object to about $820 million for alternative transportation projects, which include erosion-control landscaping and bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
“We are here with a questionable short-term fix because this Congress has refused to address its responsibility to fund our transportation infrastructure system,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who voted against the bill. “Congress shouldn’t duck its responsibilities, but should pass a six-year plan and its funding into law this year. Mark my words; next May we’re just going to be back here again, debating the same issue, but deeper in the hole with a steeper climb out.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.), who chairs the public works committee, is strident in her insistence that a long-term bill be approved before Dec. 19, when Congress heads home for the Christmas recess.
“Sadly, the House has kicked the can down the road and has decided to shirk its responsibility to fix the Highway Trust Fund in this Congress,” Boxer said. “They have failed to send a message of certainty and confidence to the thousands of businesses and millions of workers who have asked us to act this year on a long-term solution for transportation.”
Her leverage is an authorization bill. The current two-year authorization bill expires Sept. 30. If she refuses to permit extension of authorization to allow spending beyond Dec. 19, the May 31 funding allocation passed by the House may become moot.
While the White House endorsed the stop-gap measure approved by the House, President Obama said Tuesday: “All this does is set us up for the same crisis a few months from now. So Congress shouldn’t pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months, kicking the can down the road for a few months, careening from crisis to crisis when it comes to something as basic as our infrastructure,” he said. “Instead of barely paying our bills in the present, we should be investing in the future.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the president should pressure the Senate to pass a long-term bill.
“We’ll take a look at it,” Boehner said. “But until then, giving speeches about a long-term highway bill is frankly just more rhetoric.”
The Highway Trust Fund, the traditional source of funding for roads and transit projects, relies on the 18.4-cent per gallon federal gas tax, which was last raised in 1993. The tax has not been adjusted for inflation, and the fund has eroded steadily as vehicles have become more energy efficient.