Joan Lowy

WASHINGTON: Republican leaders pushed a highways-student loan package salvaging millions of construction jobs and maintaining low interest rates on millions of new college loans toward a House vote today, even as conservative groups mounted a last-minute campaign against it.

Favorable action by the Senate on what would be the only big jobs measure Congress has enacted this year was assured. Leaders said they hoped to get it done Thursday night, but then ran into procedural hurdles that pushed back a vote until today. Lawmakers in both parties hoped to get an early start bragging about a rare accomplishment four months before the election.

The conservative Heritage Action for America and the anti-tax Club for Growth urged a “no” vote on the bill in emails Thursday to lawmakers, warning that it will be counted as a key vote on their legislative score cards.

“This massive bill spends too much money, will continue taxpayer bailouts for highway spending and keeps subsidies that have contributed directly to skyrocketing tuition rates,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said.

Despite the backlash from such core conservative groups, the bill’s supporters expressed confidence. “We got a pretty good reception in conference this morning,” Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania said after House Republicans met on the bill.

After three months of haggling, House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on the package Wednesday.

It includes a two-year, $100 billion spending plan for highway and mass transit construction and repairs, $6 billion to prevent rates on new student loans from doubling after Saturday, and a five-year renewal of federal flood insurance subsidies.

The bill gives states more flexibility over how they spend federal highway aid, consolidates transportation programs and shortens environmental delays to get highway projects built faster. It also expands a loan guarantee program aimed at increasing private investment in infrastructure projects.

Without the bill or a short-term extension, federal transportation aid to states would expire, as well as the government’s ability to collect federal gasoline and diesel taxes — 18.4 cents a gallon and 24.4 cents, respectively — that fund most of those programs.

Democrats estimate that would cost an existing 1.8 million transportation-related jobs, as well as forgo another estimated 1 million jobs the bill would create.

Similarly, interest rates on new subsidized Stafford loans for college students would double to 6.8 percent beginning Sunday.

That automatic increase was approved by Congress five years ago to save money.

The bill extends the current 3.4 percent rate for 12 months, saving some 7.4 million students an average $1,000 in higher interest costs over the life of the loan, typically a decade or longer.