Highway focus shifts to Senate

The focus of the fight over the future of federal transportation funding shifts to the Senate after the House’s passage of a nearly $11 billion patch to extend infrastructure spending into next spring on Tuesday. 

The Senate had begun working on a similar, but not identical transportation funding measure that includes spending nearly the same amount of money on roads and bridges as the House proposal.  

The White House has already endorsed the GOP’s version of the transportation bill, which was approved on Tuesday in a 367-55 vote.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has indicated that he will allow a vote on the House measure.  

“My intention is have votes on all three,” Reid said in reference to the House transportation bill and competing proposals from Senate Democrats to have a December expiration date and wring more money from revenue sources GOP leaders have labeled tax increases. 

Both chambers' version of the transportation bill rely on so-called “pension smoothing” — a proposal that budget experts across the ideological spectrum have dubbed a 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 revenues by increasing tax compliance.

Republicans have objected to the Senate approach of trying to wring more revenue out of tax compliance, saying the House GOP wouldn’t approve new taxes to pay for more spending, or give an IRS that has been dogged by controversy more power.

The transportation department has warned for months while Congress has been debating that the Highway Trust Fund is going to run out of money next month unless Congress approves legislation now to plug the hole. 

The DOT has told lawmakers that the U.S. could lose 700,000 construction jobs and states would have to take a 28 percent funding cut if the highway fund is allowed to go broke. 

The usual funding source for transportation projects is revenue that is collected from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax. The tax has been stagnant since 1993, however, and it has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses as cars have become more fuel efficient in recent years. 

Democrats in the House said after Tuesday’s lopsided vote that they also expected the GOP measure to become law, even as they lamented the lack of a long-term transportation funding solution.  

“I don’t want to speak for Harry Reid, but if I were betting, I’d bet a lot of money on that,” Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said.

Conservative groups like the Club for Growth and the Heritage Action foundation have sought to mobilize against the transportation bill, arguing that it was a “bailout” because the federal government should not spend more than the gas tax brings in. 

GOP lawmakers in the House made clear Tuesday that they were not prepared to accept the consequences of a transportation funding shutdown months before a critical election, however. 

“This legislation is the responsible solution at this time, ensures that we don’t play politics with these programs, and enables us to continue making improvements to our surface transportation system,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement after the vote. 

-This story was updated with new information at 12:29 p.m.

Bernie Becker contributed to this report.