Paul, Boxer team up on transportation funding

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Sens. Rand PaulRand PaulGOP senators hit FBI on early probe of NY bombing suspect Conservative group presses GOP to vote against spending bill Saudi skeptics gain strength in Congress MORE (R-Ky.) and Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Dems demand Flint funding promise 'in writing' from GOP Senate Dems: Add Flint aid to spending deal MORE (D-Calif.) are teaming up to file a transportation funding bill they say could bring back up to $2 trillion in corporate tax revenue currently in foreign banks to help pay for U.S. infrastructure projects.

The unlikely duo said the measure would extend federal transportation programs that are currently scheduled to expire in May.

Paul and Boxer said the tax reforms, known as repatriation, are the most viable way to pay for a long-term transportation funding bill this year.

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"The interstate highway system is of vital importance to our economy," Paul, who is a likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate, said in a statement.

"All across the country, bridges and roads are deficient and in need of replacement," he continued. "We can help fund new construction and repair by lowering the repatriation rate and bringing money held by U.S. companies back home. This would mean no new taxes, but more revenue, and it is a solution that should win support from both political parties.”

Boxer, who is retiring at the end of 2016, also said the plan to use revenue from taxing oversees corporate profits was a more politically viable alternative to boost federal infrastructure funding than increasing the nation's 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax, which has been discussed in recent weeks as prices at the pump have fallen sharply.

"The bipartisan repatriation proposal is a win-win for our economy and our country," she said. "First, it will bring back hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign earnings that are sitting offshore, which can be invested here in America to create jobs. Second, the taxes paid on those earnings will be used to extend the Highway Trust Fund, which supports millions of jobs nationwide.  I hope this proposal will jumpstart negotiations on addressing the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, which is already creating uncertainty that is bad for businesses, bad for workers and bad for the economy."

The Department of Transportation's Highway Trust Fund, which has relied on gas tax money since 1956, is currently scheduled to run out of money in May, unless Congress intervenes.

Transportation advocates have argued that raising the gas tax, which predates the highway system by about 20 years, would be the easiest way to close the nation's transportation funding shortfall.

The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, and it has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses in recent years as cars have become more fuel efficient.

The tax at the pump brings in about $34 billion per year. The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on road and transit projects, and transportation advocates have maintained that the larger figure is only enough to maintain the current state of U.S. infrastructure.

Republicans leaders like Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have signaled that they are opposed to asking drivers to pay more at the pump to finance transportation projects, although some GOP senators have said they would be open to discussing an increase in a broader discussion about taxes and infrastructure spending.

Boxer and Paul's legislation would tax repatriated corporate earnings at a rate of 6.5 percent, with the money being transferred to the Highway Trust Fund.

The lawmakers on Thursday did not say how many years their measure would extend the life of the Highway Trust Fund.

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), expressed skepticism Thursday about the viability of Paul and Boxer's proposal.

“Tax holiday proposals designed to pay for the transportation bill sound great until you look at the details," Hatch said in a statement.

"After all, the Joint Committee on Taxation has clearly detailed how a stand-alone temporary tax holiday would end up costing the government in the end," Hatch continued. "Saying you're going to use something that loses money to pay for anything is just wrong. Therefore, saying you're going to use it to pay for infrastructure is just bad policy, plain and simple. Such proposals to end the lock-out effects of earnings should only be considered in the context of tax reform.”

The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation has said that a tax holiday, as repatriation plans have been referred to, would generate about $20 billion in revenue initially. The analysis said the plan would ultimately cost the federal government about $96 billion, as companies would have more incentive to keep their profits abroad and wait for another tax holiday.

The bipartisan repatriation measure joins a growing number of transportation funding bills that are being filed in both chambers as lawmakers search for solution to infrastructure shortfall before the Highway Trust Fund goes bankrupt.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said this week that he is filing a $1 trillion transportation bill, although he did not identify a source for the funding beyond the gas tax revenue.

Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) filed a $170 million transportation bill in the House that he said would extend the Highway Trust Fund for six years.

The current transportation funding bill, which spends about $11 billion and authorizes the collection of the gas tax at its current rate, is scheduled to expire on May 31.

-This story was updated with new information at 1:56 p.m.

-Bernie Becker contributed to this report.