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Senate Dems leave door open to short-term highway bill

Senate Democrats left the door open to accepting a short-term extension of federal highway funding Wednesday even as they needled House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerAre maskless House members scofflaws? Israel, Democrats and the problem of the Middle East Joe Crowley to register as lobbyist for recording artists MORE (R-Ohio) Wednesday for being unable to pass one thus far.

Asked by reporters if Democrats would reject a short-term extension approved by the House, Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Energy: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process Wednesday | Bipartisan bill would ban 'forever chemicals' in cosmetics | Biden admin eyes step toward Trump-era proposal for uranium reserve GOP senator: I want to make Biden a 'one-half-term president' How Biden can get the infrastructure bill through Congress MORE (D-N.Y.) dodged the question, saying he hoped Republicans wouldn't put the Senate in that position.

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Speaking in front of a clock counting down to the March 31 expiration of current transportation funding, Schumer blasted BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerAre maskless House members scofflaws? Israel, Democrats and the problem of the Middle East Joe Crowley to register as lobbyist for recording artists MORE and House Republicans for not moving the Senate's $109 billion transportation bill, which he said could be a "life boat" for the Speaker. 

"There's an easy way to resolve it, which is for them to pass the Senate's bill," Schumer said. 

"The Senate two-year bill can be a life boat for Speaker Boehner," he said. "He should take it before it's too late." 



The House on Monday and Tuesday postponed votes on a temporary measure to extend highway funding. In both cases, it appeared Republicans didn't have the two-thirds majority required to win approval of the measure under a suspension of House rules. 


The original House schedule for Wednesday called for a third attempt at passing the extension (H.R. 4239), but the measure later was postponed again. 

"It's the House's decision here," Schumer said Wednesday. "What are they going to do if we're getting close to the deadline [and] they're in the same morass that they're in now? 

The first GOP attempt this week was a 90-day extension of 2005 highway bill, which expired in 2009. The second was a shorter 60-day measure.

Democrats in both chambers have tried repeatedly to pressure House Republicans into taking up the Senate's version of the bill (S. 1813), which was approved in a bipartisan vote earlier this month. House Democrats introduced the Senate version of the transportation bill as stand-alone legislation, and the party also tried to add the Senate's bill to unrelated FCC and healthcare measures as amendments.

The latter efforts were defeated on procedural votes.

Republicans have argued that they are attempting to pass a transportation extension to give themselves more time to craft a long-term version of the bill that can pass the lower chamber. They are blaming Democrats for the possibility of a transportation shutdown.

“There is only one reason this bill will not be voted on tonight: House Democrats are playing political games with our nation’s economy," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said after the transportation measure was pulled Tuesday.

If lawmakers do not pass a highway bill extension by the end of the week, the federal government will be unable to collect the federal gas tax that is normally used to fund transportation projects.

Democrats have said not extending the gas tax, which brings in about $100 million per day to the Highway Trust Fund, will cost about 3 million construction jobs.

Boehner has identified the transportation bill as a top priority for most of the year, but his preference for a five-year, $260 billion measure has been met with resistance in his Republican Conference.

Democrats are also now arguing that passing a short-term extension without addressing a shortfall in revenue brought into the Highway Trust Fund from the federal gas tax would accelerate a bankruptcy in the transportation fund.

The Senate's version of the transportation bill and the House's original version of the measure extend the government's authorization to collect the gas tax. But both measures spend more than $50 billion per year on transportation projects, and the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax only brings in about $36 billion per year.

The Congressional Budget Office has reported that absent new funding being approved by lawmakers, the highway trust fund could go bankrupt as early as 2014.