Senate sends highway bill back to House

The Senate on Tuesday sent a highway bill back to the House with changes, putting the legislation up in the air with only three days left to act before the August recess.

The Senate voted 66-31 to amend the House's $10.9 billion funding bill so that the funding only lasts until Dec. 19. That would force lawmakers to pass another extension in the lame-duck session after the election.

Earlier this month, the House voted 367-55 to pass H.R. 5021, which extends funding for the Highway Trust Fund through May. The Senate passed the same measure Tuesday night on a 79-18 vote, changing the expiration date and some of the funding.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made clear Tuesday that the House wasn’t about to reopen the highway debate, having passed legislation that would prevent the Highway Trust Fund from going bankrupt in August.

“I just want to make clear: If the Senate sends a highway bill over here with those provisions, we’re just going to strip it out,” Boehner said.

Without congressional action, funding for road and infrastructure projects will dry up next month, idling projects across the country during the summer driving season.

House GOP leaders have expressed confidence that the Senate will ultimately accept their version of the transportation bill because both parties fear being blamed for shutting down construction projects in an election year. 

Still, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) argue the federal Highway Trust Fund should only be funded until Dec. 19 in order to pressure Congress into passing a long-term fix in December. Their amendment shortened the expiration date by removing a "pension smoothing" provision that had helped offset the cost of the spending.

“I can’t support another kicking the can down the road on one of the simplest issue we have in the Senate because an election is coming up,” Corker said. “It’s the wrong thing to do.”

Carper said passing a short-term bill makes Congress look “foolish” and “impotent.”

“Congress must act this year to pass and fund a long-term transportation bill,” Carper said ahead of the vote. “I remain deeply concerned that, if we kick this can into next year that the next Congress — like so many Congresses before it — will be unable to summon the courage necessary to write a long-term plan for our nation’s infrastructure.”

The Senate also voted 71-26 to adopt Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) nine-month substitute amendment, which passed unanimously out of his committee. All amendments were held to a 60-vote threshold for adoption.

Both the Senate and the House nine-month extensions rely on so-called “pension smoothing” — a proposal that budget experts across the ideological spectrum have dubbed a budget gimmick — and boosting customs user fees to extend highway funding.

But the Senate proposal squeezes less money out of both those policies, and adds a variety of other measures, such as requiring more information about home mortgage interest, that would raise revenue by increasing tax compliance.

“I think it would be legislative malpractice for the Senate not to have a role to play in this premier economic issue now before the Congress,” Wyden said. “There is still time to work out any differences between the Senate and the other body before the Congress recesses at the end of this week.”

Republicans have objected to the Senate approach, arguing Congress should not empower the IRS, after its mishandling of applications for tax-exempt groups.

The House has until the end of the week to either send the bill back to the Senate or pass the Senate version. Both chambers are scheduled to leave for the August recess on Friday. 

Wyden said it’s unfortunate the House is sending an “our way or no highway” message to the Senate.

“This work is going to be done this week,” Wyden said. “This is non-negotiable. Congress is going to get this resolved. In no way, shape or form are we going to have the transportation equivalent of a government shutdown.”

The trust fund gets its money from the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax, which has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure spending. Some lawmakers have proposed raising the gas tax — which hasn’t been increased in more than 20 years — in a six-year funding bill in order to avoid more shortfalls in the future.

Senate Republicans were also able to offer amendments to the House bill.

Sen. Mike Lee’s  (R-Utah) amendment would have phased out the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax and given states authority over federal highways. That amendment failed on a 28-69 vote

Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) amendment would exempt the reconstruction of roads, rails and bridges damaged by a natural disaster from environmental reviews. His amendment failed on a 47-50 vote.

— Keith Laing and Bernie Becker contributed to this article.

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