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Congress races toward Highway Trust Fund deadline

Congress returns on Tuesday to a familiar scenario: the federal Highway Trust Fund is about to expire and lawmakers have not figured out how to pay for an extension of the program.

Leaders in the House and Senate plan to spend the four weeks remaining before funding for road and bridge projects expires July 31 negotiating a reauthorization of the program, while also working on proposals to revamp the No Child Left Behind education law, cybersecurity legislation and several appropriations bills.

The tight time frame makes it increasingly likely that Congress will have to settle for a short-term patch to the highway program in order to give negotiators more time to agree on funding for a six-year reauthorization that was approved by a Senate committee last month. Some Republicans, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), have said they are open to a six-month patch but he has yet to say what kind of funding plan he has in mind.

The highway funding debate may be further complicated if Senate Democrats try to attach legislation to renew the Export-Import Bank’s expired charter.

But first the House and the Senate plan this week to begin focusing on legislation to overhaul No Child Left Behind. Lawmakers have been working all year to make changes to the much-maligned education law and votes are expected in the House as early as this week and next week in the Senate.

House Republicans abandoned an earlier version of the bill in February after conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation protested any new federal involvement in education. The latest attempt to move the bill will include a vote on an amendment to allow local schools greater flexibility in how they spend federal money, a measure intended to appease conservatives.

The Senate version of the legislation was approved unanimously in committee and may have an easier path to passage.

Senate Republican leaders are also waiting for the official scorekeepers at the Congressional Budget Office to release a price tag for the six-year highway bill. Hatch will be primarily responsible for finding ways to pay for the program but aides have suggested that additional funding could come from spending cuts to other transportation related programs.

The White House wants Congress to pay for a long-term highway bill by overhauling parts of the business tax code. That effort could get a boost later this week when members of the Senate Finance Committee’s international tax reform working group complete work on recommendations for business tax reform.

The group, led by Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), has been in communication with aides to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.). Ryan has also been open to the potential of overhauling tax laws for businesses this year but has not agreed to earmark the money it raises for a highway bill.

Even if leaders can reach an agreement on a short-term highway bill a lingering political fight over the Export-Import Bank could derail the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last month that he will not block Democrats from attempting to reauthorize the bank through an amendment to highway legislation. But House conservatives have vowed to fight any attempt to reauthorize the bank’s charter, arguing the credit agency promotes “crony capitalism.”

Also this month, Congress will attempt to complete work on a customs bill and agree on a final version of the annual defense policy bill. They will also vote on several funding bills despite an ongoing showdown between Democrats and Republicans over spending for domestic programs.

The House will wrap up work this week on a bill to fund the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a memo sent to members by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). The bill contains provision that would block the EPA from enforcing clean air and water regulations and prevents new regulations on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The White House is expected to threaten to veto the legislation, as it has with every spending bill until Republicans agree to increase spending caps that were put in place as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act, also known as the sequester.

Republicans in the Senate also plan to bring up funding bills despite an ongoing blockade from Democrats. McConnell has not specified which bills he plans to offer, but Senate Democrats have said they will filibuster any attempt by Republicans to consider appropriations bills until budget negotiations are underway.