WASHINGTON: Congress on Thursday pushed through a 90-day stopgap measure to extend current highway funding, averting a halt in road and infrastructure projects because of the inability of lawmakers to agree on a broader transportation measure.
The quick Senate approval Thursday afternoon came after a House vote and meant that work could continue on scores of highway, transit and bridge projects paid for out of the highway trust fund. The measure would be the ninth extension since a $286 billion, multiyear plan ended in 2009; had Congress taken no action, the current extension would have expired over the weekend.
The extension passed the House by a vote of 266-158, with 10 Republicans voting against the measure and 37 Democrats voting for it.
The impasse over a longer-term measure stems both from partisan differences over how to best address a highway trust fund that has dwindled because of the increase in fuel efficient cars and divisions among House Republicans over legislation that has in the past cleared Congress with bipartisan support.
This month, the Senate easily passed a bipartisan bill that would have funded the program for two years at a cost of $109 billion.
The House transportation committee passed its own version this year, a five-year, $260-billion measure that would have been paid for in part with revenues from new drilling projects, including a proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But Republicans never brought the measure to the House floor, because some party members thought the price tag was too high, others were unhappy with the removal of dedicated funds for public transportation and others still did not like the drilling component.
Stymied House Republicans, unwilling to take up the Senate measure, which Speaker John Boehner said was not paid for in a way Republicans could accept, instead went with the short-term bill.
“Some of the pay-fors,” said Boehner, R-West Chester, in a news conference, referring to offsets to pay for a bill, “I don’t think pass the straight-face test, and we will deal with that when we get to conference.”
He declined to offer specifics.
Democrats seemed skeptical that a long-term measure could be passed this year.
“The Republicans cannot even bring their own transportation bill to the floor and pass it,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the minority leader, on the House floor. “Their own transportation bill is not a good bill, but at least it would take us to conference.”
The bill prompted a lively and at times rancorous debate, reflecting the increased partisan tensions in Congress as the election year heats up.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., at one point referred to some Republican members as “bozos” for their displeasures over federal funding for transportation.
The remark displeased Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who is chairman of the House transportation committee and who has been at the center of the battle over this bill.