Senate changes highway bill, risks construction shutdown

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Funding for federal highway projects were at a crossroads on Tuesday after the Senate approved legislation that House Republican leaders say is a nonstarter in the lower chamber.

The Senate bill extends funding for the highway projects until December instead of May, as the House prefers.

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 The differences mean the House and Senate could be ping-ponging legislation back and forth, right up until they are scheduled to leave Washington on Thursday for a five-week recess.

The Transportation Department has warned that, by Friday, it will begin cutting payments to state and local governments for road and transit projects by as much as 28 percent if Congress doesn’t take quick action. 

The Senate approved the bill in a 79-18 vote, and an amendment from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) changing the end date to Dec. 19 in a 71-26 vote.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday said the House wouldn’t accept the Senate’s changes, and would simply strip them out and send another bill back to the Senate.

Democrats said there would still be time to work out a deal.

“Congress has addressed much bigger pieces of legislation and the difference between the House and Senate on tight time frames in the past,” Wyden said.

“This work is going to be done this week,” he said. “This is non-negotiable. The 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.” 

House GOP leaders have expressed confidence that the Senate would ultimately accept their version of the transportation-funding package because neither party is eager to be blamed for shutting down construction projects in the middle of an election year. 

Besides the time frame for the funding, Democrats and Republicans also disagree over how to pay for the bill’s $10.9 billion in costs.

The House bill relies on an accounting maneuver known as “pension smoothing” and increased customs user fees.

Wyden argues the House bill relies too much on pension smoothing.

Some Republicans in the Senate back Wyden’s bill but say it’s too risky not to accept the House bill this close to the deadline.

“At this point, it almost becomes a question of what’s the best way to get it to the finish line,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of the Finance Committee. 

“The one thing that we do know will pass the House is the House-passed bill,” he said.

Wyden accused Republicans of saying, “it’s our way or no highway” by signaling that they would reject any amendments that are added to the measure by the Senate.  

“For us to just accept it today would be to abdicate our responsibilities,” Wyden said. “I believe the approach that we’ve built in the Finance Committee is a more responsible approach and certainly there is time to compromise.

Separately during the Senate debate, lawmakers killed an amendment offered by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to gradually reduce the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents. The tax is the traditional source of revenue for transportation projects, and has not been hiked since 1993.

The amendment was killed in a 28-69 vote.

 -Bernie Becker contributed to this report.