House passes $325B highway bill

The House approved a bill to spend up to $325 billion on transportation projects on Thursday after a weeklong vote-a-rama and an intense debate about federal gas taxes.

The measure also includes a reauthorization of the controversial Export-Import Bank's charter, which has been held up in Congress since it expired in June.  The extension, which was included in the Senate's highway bill and left unchanged by the House, reauthorizes the bank's expired charter until 2019. 

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The House voted to approve the bill in a 363-64 vote. It calls for spending $261 billion on highways and $55 billion on transit over six years. The legislation authorizes highway funding for six years, but only if Congress can come up with a way to pay for the final three years.

The measure must now be conferenced with a separate Senate measure on highways.

The Senate bill also authorizes six years of funding, but only pays for three years. However, the Senate bill includes no trigger requiring that Congress find a way to pay for the final three years. 

Congress faces a Nov. 20 deadline to complete work on a conference report and prevent a gap in highway funding.

Federal funding is covered by the gas tax, but it does not provide enough money to meet the needs for various federal transportation projects around the country.

Both the House and Senate bills provide other funding sources to buttress the gas tax for three years.

The House voted on nearly 130 amendments before getting to final passage.

Democrats complained bitterly about a decision by House Republicans to block a vote on a controversial amendment that would have raised the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax, which directly funds transportation projects, by 15 cents.

Democrats said the GOP's move to avoid a vote on increasing the gas tax flies in the face of Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) promise for more open legislative debates.

"The biggest and most glaring omission by the Rules Committee is not allowing any attempt by this House to fund the bill. I mean, that's pretty extraordinary," Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who is the top ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said during Wednesday debate on the highway bill.   

"Why can't we have a simple vote on revenues?" DeFazio continued. 

Republicans countered that the chamber has powered through dozens of amendments in an attempt to pass a highway bill that lasts longer than two years for the first time since 2005. 

"By any measure, this is the best transportation process and the best transportation rule that this body has seen in a decade," said Rep. Rob WoodallRob WoodallLawmakers backed embargo, but now want local flights to Cuba House appoints negotiators for highway bill talks with Senate House passes 5B highway bill MORE (R-Ga.), who is a GOP floor manager for the highway bill. 

Transportation advocates hailed the House's passage of the highway bill, even though lawmakers left the question of the final three years of highway funding undecided. 

"Equipment manufacturers applaud the House for passing The [Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform] Act, a long-term highway bill that will spur investments to rebuild America's crumbling infrastructure," Dennis Slater, president of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), said in a statement after the vote. 

"This legislation is a worthwhile effort by House leaders to fulfill their pledge to pass a long-term highway bill this fall," Slater continued. "Congress is now on the cusp of a major victory for American manufacturing. AEM will work tirelessly in the coming weeks to urge House and Senate leaders to expeditiously reconcile the differences between their two bills." 

-Cristina Marcos and Vicki Needham contributed to this report.