House jams Senate on highway funding

The House on Thursday will try to force the Senate to agree to its version of a $10.9 billion bill extending federal funding for highways and infrastructure projects. 

Republicans in the House believe Democrats in the Senate will have little choice but to accept their version of the bill if it is sent back on Thursday afternoon, just before Congress is set to begin a five-week recess. The House plans to adjourn shortly after the vote.

At issue is how long transportation funding will be extended in the short term. Democrats want to deal with a longer-term fix during the lame-duck session after the November elections, while Republicans want to extend funding into next year and the next Congress — possibly one with a Republican Senate.

Only one day remains before the Department of Transportation says it will have to begin cutting back on construction payments. 

The extension has become bogged down in a procedural fight that has threatened to halt construction across the country in the middle of the peak season for road and transit projects. 

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The House is expected to take up a version of the transportation funding extension that was approved by the Senate earlier this week. The Senate amended the measure to expire in December instead of next May, but GOP leaders in the House have said they would remove the changes and send the transportation bill back to the upper chamber. 

The game of bicameral chicken has increased the odds that the transportation department will begin cutting back payments to state and local governments by as much as 28 percent, as the Obama administration, earlier this month, warned would be necessary if Congress does not reach an agreement. 

The Transportation Department has warned for months that its Highway Trust Fund, which is used to reimburse states for construction projects, will run out of money in August unless it is replenished by lawmakers. 

Lawmakers in both chambers generally agree that an approximately $10 billion fix is needed to avoid a transportation funding bankruptcy in the run-up to the midterm elections.

The House has said it prefers to extend transportation funding until next May to avoid efforts to increase the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax that is normally used to pay for transportation projects. 

The gas tax has been the traditional source of paying for transportation projects since the inception of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and it has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses as cars have become more fuel efficient. 

House Republicans said on Wednesday that their argument in favor of the May deadline was bolstered by an error in the Senate’s version of the infrastructure spending bill that would case the measure to fall about $2 billion short of the amount of money that is needed to bolster the highway fund until the end of the year. 

"The Senate-passed highway bill contains a critical error, and is not fully offset through December 19," House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement. "The only responsible course is for the Senate to pass the original House-passed highway bill, which we will soon send back to them.”

Senate Democrats have countered that the House can make a technical correction to their amended version of the bill and send it back to them Thursday with the December date still in tact. 

"The House could easily fix this error and send the bill back to the Senate, which has voted overwhelmingly in favor of an extension of transportation programs only through the end of the year without pension smoothing," Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) said in a statement. 

"There is still no question that the Senate bill takes the most responsible path toward shoring up the Highway Trust Fund in the long-term," the lawmakers continued. 

The House is expected to vote on the transportation funding bill on Thursday afternoon. 

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