Highway funding battle moves back to Senate

The battle over extending federal transportation funding that is set to expire on Thursday is moving back to the Senate after the House approved a temporary patch on Tuesday. 

The House voted to approve a measure to extend federal transportation funding for three weeks in an effort to prevent a highway funding stoppage. 

The bill, H.R. 3819, would extend federal transportation spending, currently set to expire Oct. 29, until Nov. 20. It was approved by the House on a voice vote after a brief debate.

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The Senate is also expected to pass the temporary highway funding measure to avert an interruption, but the chamber will have to work quickly because the federal government's authority to spend money on transportation projects is set to expire on Thursday. 

Lawmakers in both chambers have said the temporary patch will provide time for them to finish work on a multiyear highway bill that has been elusive for a decade. 

“It doesn’t give us much time, but we need to get down to work,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said, warning lawmakers they will have limited time to negotiate a long-term measure with the Senate in the next few weeks.

The Senate has already passed a bill that includes three years of guaranteed highway funding in July. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, meanwhile, has approved a six-year, $325 billion transportation funding bill that is expected to soon come up for a vote on the floor of the full House. 

Democrats in the House complained that the broader transportation bill does not contain a long-sought increase in infrastructure spending, but they largely supported the temporary extension to prevent an interruption in the nation's infrastructure funding. 

Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that the longstanding reluctance to increasing the federal gas tax should come to an end.

"I think the American people are more realistic than that," he said of the fuel tax, which has been set at 18.4 cents-per-gallon since 1993.

Lawmakers in the House were able to put off the question of how to pay for the measure because they included enough funding in a short-term bill passed this summer to last until the end of the year. But that earlier patch is scheduled to expire Thursday, necessitating the measure approved Tuesday.

Congress has not passed a transportation funding bill lasting longer than two years since 2005, to the chagrin of infrastructure advocates in Washington.

Lawmakers in the Senate have signaled they will accept the House's three-week patch to clear the way for a bicameral conference committee on the broader infrastructure bill. 

"Because we still face this important [conference], Congress will need one more extension to get us to the finish line," Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said on Monday before the House vote. 

Inhofe and other Senate leaders have said they expect to be able to get a multiyear highway bill to President Obama’s desk by Thanksgiving.

"The finish line should be the 20th of November," Inhofe said in a speech Monday evening.

"Unlike in years past, I expect a very short conference period," he continued. "When I say a very short conference period, it's because there's very little difference between the House bill and the Senate bill. I've talked to the likely conferees and they are in accord with the idea that we can do this in a matter of hours and not days." 

The White House has also signaled that Obama will sign the latest temporary road funding patch, though the president has also decried the number of temporary patches, which transportation advocates say hamstring state governments that are working on long-term construction projects. 

“The unfortunate reality is Congress will need to pass another short-term” measure, White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters last Friday.

The Department of Transportation has warned that it will have to stop making payments to states and local governments for infrastructure projects in November if Congress does not reach an agreement.  

The temporary transportation funding bill also includes a provision that extends a Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to install an automated train navigation system, known as positive train control, to the end of 2018. The extension had previously been attached to the House's multiyear highway bill after railroads threatened to partially shut down many of the nation's railways.