Senate Dems to take up House's highway bill

Congress on Tuesday moved one step closer to preventing a shortfall in federal transportation funding that could stall road projects across the country in August.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he plans to hold a vote on the $10.9 billion House measure extending transportation funding until the spring as early as Wednesday

“We're going to have votes on the Highway Trust Fund before we leave here,” he said at a news conference. “I'd like to do it tomorrow or the next day.”

The Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund, which is used to reimburse states for large infrastructure projects, had been forecasted to run out of money next month, unless Congress approves at least a temporary funding extension. 

The trust fund gets its money from the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax, which has struggled to keep up with the need for infrastructure spending projects as cars grow more fuel-efficient.

Efforts to raise the gas tax for the first time since 1993 have been unsuccessful.

Senate Democrats and at least one high-profile Republican had pushed for a shorter extension of the transportation bill. They favored an extension only until the end of the year, which would have forced lawmakers to debate a long-term transportation package during the lame-duck session that will follow the November elections. 

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) are attempting to offer amendments to the House bill that would bring it closer in line with a Senate proposal to extend transportation funding only until Dec. 31.

Corker made headlines recently, when he came out in favor of an increasing the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax.

House Republicans have opposed efforts to increase the gas tax and have said that their bill is the only one that could pass both chambers in time to prevent the bankruptcy in the trust fund.

“It's a sound proposal. It's why it got bipartisan support in the House, and it's frankly why it's going to get bipartisan support in the Senate,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said of the GOP transportation bill in a news conference last week.

The gas tax has been the main funding source for transportation projects since the interstate highway system was created in the 1950s, but will fall about $16 billion short of the demand for spending.

The current transportation funding bill, which is scheduled to expire in September, includes approximately $50 billion per year in road and transit spending. The gas tax only brings in about $34 billion per year.

Transportation advocates have pushed for lawmakers to increase the gas tax for the first time in two decades to close the infrastructure funding shortfall. 

Lawmakers have been reluctant to increase the price that is paid by drivers in the middle of a campaign year, though GOP leaders have accused Democrats of trying to “sneak” a gas tax hike past voters after the midterm elections.

Reid said Tuesday that he is still negotiating with senators over potential amendments to the transportation funding extension ahead of the expected vote this week. 

“We have four or five amendments, where we're trying to get agreement to allow them to come forward,” he said.

This story was updated at 5:45 p.m.