WASHINGTON – Faced with the threat that federal money for 117,000 transportation projects would begin to dry up in two weeks, the House on Tuesday approved a nearly $11 billion patch to extend funding through May.
The stopgap fix to avert a crisis imperiling up to 700,000 construction jobs won endorsement from the White House, but the Senate is likely to tinker with it before it reaches President Barack Obama’s desk.
The bill, approved by a 367-55 vote, would transfer $9.9 billion from the general fund and $1 billion from a separate trust fund into the rapidly dwindling Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to run in the red starting next month.
The general fund transfers would be offset by extending customs fees and a process called pension smoothing, both steps that critics have denounced as gimmicks and smoke and mirrors.
We shouldn’t be paying for filling potholes by creating potholes in Americans’ pensions, said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who voted against the bill. This is not a serious or sustainable response to the challenge of an underfunded highway program. Congress should bite the bullet and do its job.
The Senate is moving toward its own short-term fix built around those two funding sources and tapping into an array of others. Rather than move forward with that bill, the Senate may amend the House bill to its liking and send it to the White House.
A small but critical difference between the bills will have to be resolved. The House bill extends funding until May 31, the Senate bill, which contains a similar amount of cash, is open-ended.
Pull back the covers on that discrepancy to uncover a largely partisan divide.
Senate Democrats, who say they have a few silent GOP supporters, insist that a long-term transportation bill must be considered in the post-election lame-duck session. They argue that extending the funding window until June could make transportation a pawn next year in larger debates about the debt ceiling or a continuing resolution on the federal budget.
House Republicans, with support from several GOP senators, including Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, favor giving the new Congress time to find its legs before tackling transportation.
The nub of the controversy is who will control the Senate after the November election. Democrats think they will retain it.
If the GOP takes control of the Senate, they are sure to want to modify the six-year transportation proposal that won the approval of 10 Democrats and eight Republicans on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in May.
Some Republicans, particularly in the House, would like to de-couple funding for transit systems from the Highway Trust Fund, reserving the money road and bridge projects. They also object to about $820 million for alternative transportation projects, which include erosion-control landscaping and bike and pedestrian infrastructure.