Congress passes highway funds, extends lower student loan rate

Congress on Friday approved legislation that will extend federal highway programs through 2014, a low interest rate on student loans for one year, and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) for five years.

Leaders in the House and Senate negotiated the giant package, leaving no doubt that it would have enough support to pass. The bill will likely be the last major piece of legislation approved by Congress until after the November elections.

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The House voted 373-52 in favor of the bill, which was supported by every voting Democrat, while 52 Republicans opposed it. In the Senate, the tally was 74-19, with 23 Republicans joining every Democrat in voting for the measure. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) voted present, while Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) missed the vote.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama looks forward to signing the bill.

Congress faced a weekend deadline for extending the highway and student loan provisions. The rates for federally backed student loans were set to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, and transportation funding was due to expire. 


The transportation bill was the most contested part of the package. Prominent conservative groups urged Republicans to vote against it, while the U.S. Chamber of Congress pushed for passage.

While members were not happy with every provision in the bill, they largely praised it during floor debate in both chambers. 

Democrats, in particular, hailed the extension of the highway provisions for two years, which they said would boost job creation.

"This conference agreement ... means jobs, and it means that we will not have further layoffs," said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.). "It means that we will continue to improve our economy, and when all is said and done, I would choose to vote for American jobs any day."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who led negotiations on the transportation measure as chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the bill’s passage "sends a good message to the public" about how productive Congress can be.

But Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who sponsored a point of order objecting to the package under the Budget Control Act, said a vote for the bill was a vote for excessive government spending. 

"I just want to say ... it continues to be unbelievable to me that this body does not have the courage, does not have the will, does not have the discipline to even live within a very modest budget that was laid out last August," Corker said. "So I would say, all those who vote for this today are basically saying we do not have the discipline to live within our means."

The final bill does not include language that would require approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. House Republicans had pushed for a provision on Keystone, but dropped the demand after winning a concession from Democrats to streamline permitting of transportation projects. 

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, seemed relived to be finally approving a long-term highway bill after several short-term extensions.

"It is good to be at this point in the completion of a long-overdue transportation reform bill. A lot of people said it couldn't be done," Mica said.

"Tomorrow would actually close down thousands of transportation projects around the country," he added. "Transportation departments around the country were on the verge of sort of handing out IOUs or shutting down. Probably millions would have been put out of work if we hadn't acted."

The highway portion of the bill authorizes spending of about $120 billion through 2014, and funds most of that by extending various fuel and highway taxes. But because those taxes don't fully cover planned spending, the bill raises new revenues from companies by making changes to the way corporate pensions are calculated, and by increasing premiums paid to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

The vote also ends a long streak without a long-term highway bill. The last transportation bill that was approved by Congress was supposed to expire in September 2009, when former Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) ran the Transportation Committee in the House. Instead, the measure was temporarily extended nine times, including the latest three-month appropriation that was scheduled to expire on Saturday.

The scope of the new transportation legislation has been reduced since the last time Congress approved a multiyear highway bill. The last bill, which was signed into law in 2005 by former President George W. Bush, lasted four years and spent $244 billion on road and transit projects.

The bill also extends the lower 3.4 percent rate for new, federally backed student loans for another year. The low rate was set to expire July 1, which would have required a doubling of the rate to 6.8 percent.

Republicans had pressed to pay the $6 billion cost of extending the low rate by eliminating a preventive healthcare fund created by the 2010 healthcare reform law. Democrats, in contrast, proposed language that would have subjected more income from high-income earners to the payroll tax.

The compromise agreement avoided both outcomes, and allowed the money to be raised through the pension changes.

Finally, the bill reauthorizes the National Flood Insurance Program for five years, which will put the housing industry at ease. NFIP authorization was due to expire July 30, and because it's the nation's only supplier of flood insurance, the housing industry was increasingly worried about what failure to extend the program would do to home sales in flood zones.

Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) said the bill starts to reform the NFIP, including by requiring the government to explore ways that the private sector can participate in the flood insurance market. Specifically, it would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assess whether the private market could bear the risks of offering flood insurance.

"Many of us in Congress would like the private sector, instead of taxpayers, to shoulder the risk of the National Flood Insurance Program," Biggert said on the floor.

—This story was first posted at 1:22 p.m. and has been updated.

— Keith Laing contributed. 

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