Senate approves three-week highway bill

The Senate on Wednesday approved a measure to extend federal transportation funding for three weeks, sending the bill to President Obama.

The bill would extend federal transportation spending until Nov. 20 and prevent a shutdown in funding on Thursday, when the current authority expires.

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The Senate approved the measure by voice vote a day after it was sent over from the House.

Obama has railed against short-term transportation funding patches in the past, but is expected to sign the bill to prevent an interruption in the nation's road funding ahead of the busy holiday travel season. 

Lawmakers in both chambers have said the temporary patch will provide time for them to finish work on a long-sought multiyear highway funding bill.

"This three-week extension will allow the House and Senate to go conference on our bipartisan long-term bill and get that signed into law before Nov. 20," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellProgressive group changes tone on Kaine Trump hits Kaine on TPP: He supports a 'job killer' Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE (R-Ky.) said moments before the quick vote on Wednesday. 

The Senate has already passed a six-year highway bill in July, but the measure only includes three years' worth of guaranteed funding.

The House, meanwhile, has worked on a six-year, $325 billion transportation bill that similarly contains only three years of guaranteed funding. The House would cut off the nation's infrastructure spending in three years if Congress does not come up with a way to pay for the rest of the spending.

The lower chamber is expected to bring the multiyear highway bill up for a vote on the floor of the House next week, clearing the way for a long-sought conference on infrastructure spending between the chambers.

Lawmakers have been struggling for years to come up with a long-term extension of federal transportation funding that is normally financed by the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in appropriately $34 billion at its current rate.

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

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

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

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

Senate leaders say they expect to be able to get a multiyear highway bill to President Obama’s desk by Thanksgiving.

"Unlike in years past, I expect a very short conference period," Sen. James InhofeJames InhofeFeds withdraw lesser prairie-chicken protections A GMO labeling law that doesn’t require English? No thanks! Majority of GOP senators to attend Trump convention MORE (R-Okla.) said in a speech Monday evening.

"When I say a very short conference period, it's because there's very little difference between the House bill and the Senate bill," he continued. "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 short-term bill also 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 both the Senate and House's multiyear highway bills after railroads threatened to partially shut down many of the nation's railways.

Democrats complained about the automated train extension being attached to a highway funding measure that lasts less than a month. 

"I think it's a horrible precedent to take a provision out of an underlying bill that we've all worked so hard on, and attach it - a three-to-five year provision, a delay in the safety measure - on a three week extension," said Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerDem suggests race factored into Obama Senate endorsement Obama, Biden back Kamala Harris in Calif. Senate race Tim Scott says he was targeted by Capitol Police MORE (D-Calif.), who tried unsuccessfully to shorten the extension to one year.

Supporters of the automated train extension said the three-year period for railroads to implement the Positive Train Control system was the result of bipartisan agreement. 

"This language which is agreed upon, both the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans and the relevant committees worked very hard to draft consensus language, that's what we've arrived at today," Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneFCC chief pushes phone companies to offer free robocall blocking How the new aviation law will affect your travel GOP chairman seeks answers about Tesla’s autopilot feature MORE (R-S.D.) said. 

This story was updated at 4:37 p.m.