Senate passes FAA, highway funding

The Senate on Thursday approved legislation that extends taxes funding the Federal Aviation Administration through January, and extends taxes funding federal highway spending through March.

The bill passed the House with ease Tuesday and won Senate approval in a 92-6 vote. The bill was announced Monday as the result of an agreement between House and Senate leaders, and was seen as a high priority because FAA funding would have expired Friday without reauthorization.

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A filibuster by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) had threatened to prevent the Senate from approving the measure before the deadline. Democrats estimated that up to 80,000 workers could have been left without work if FAA funding was not renewed.

In a compromise negotiated Thursday afternoon, Senate Democratic leaders agreed to allow Coburn and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to offer amendments on a separate disaster relief bill, and allowed Paul to offer two amendments to the FAA/highway bill.

Reid said Coburn approached him to discuss a settlement a few hours earlier.

“I was walking to lunch today to go to our caucus [meeting] and Senator Coburn was on the floor and we started a conversation,” Reid said.

That led to intense discussions throughout the afternoon between Coburn and Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Boxer and Inhofe persuaded Coburn to drop his objection after explaining to him reforms they had made to a two-year authorization of the highway bill that Congress will take up when the six-month extension expires.

“I just explained to him, as did Senator Inhofe, that the area he’s concerned about — transportation enhancements — that we have reformed that as we have the whole bill and we felt he would be pleased with the reforms,” Boxer said.

Coburn had blocked the bill because he opposed funding slated for beauty enhancements such as bike paths, trees along roadways and infrastructure to direct storm runoff.

Boxer and Inhofe explained that so-called transportation enhancement funding accounted for only 2 percent of the pending two-year transportation authorization bill. They emphasized reforms in the legislation that would give states more flexibility over how to use those funds.

“Now that we have overcome this hurdle, it’s time to get to work on passing a two-year highway bill,” Inhofe said in a news release. “Senator Coburn is absolutely correct to say that states should not be required to fund highway beautification projects. I am pleased that we have reached an agreement with Senator Boxer on this issue.”

The Senate rejected both of Paul’s amendments, which were aimed at limiting FAA and highway spending further. Paul argued that Congress needs to do more to reduce spending than what was offered in the House bill, which will keep FAA and highway spending at FY 2011 levels through early next year.

“There are significant ramifications to incurring so much debt,” Paul said before the vote.

In an earlier floor debate, he lamented that some of the appropriated highway funds would be spent on beautification projects.

“Something is seriously wrong with this government when we are telling local governments to spend their highway funds on tunnels, white squirrel parks and movie theaters,” he said.

The bill, H.R. 2887, marks the 22nd temporary extension of the FAA’s funding, and the eighth extension of federal highway programs. But House Republicans vowed that this would be the last temporary extension for these programs.

With both House and Senate passage, the bill goes to the White House, where President Obama is expected to sign it sometime before the end of Friday.

Mario Trujillo contributed to this story.

This story was originally posted at 6:20 p.m. and has been updated.

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