Senators approved a short-term solution to fund the Highway Trust Fund in a 79-18 vote.
The bill that is being sent back to the House includes an amendment removing a measure to change the way corporations calculate pensions and provides funding to the Highway Trust Fund until the end of the year — forcing Congress to find a long-term solution before a new Congress arrives. The House proposal would last until May. This is the 11th short-term extension since 2008.
The fund is the nation’s primary source of road and bridge funding,and without a bill,it will run out of money in September. If the bill doesn’t survive the rest of its journey,the Department of Transportation will have to drastically reduce payments to the states. This could cost 700,000 jobs.
“It’s abundantly clear that we need a long-term plan,” Sen. Ron Wyden,D-Ore.,said during the floor debate.
In a discussion largely absent of road-based puns,the Senate sped through hours of debate.
Wyden and Sen. Orrin Hatch,R-Utah,wrote the Senate version of the bill earlier this month,conceding that a long-term solution is not possible before the midterm elections in November.
“We can’t have big-league economy with little-league transportation,” Wyden said.
The House Ways and Means Committee chaired by Rep. Dave Camp,R-Mich.,had its own solution,which included more so-called pension-smoothing,or accounting latitude,for corporate pensions than most Senators were comfortable with.
Hatch said he was “not a fan.”
The Senate debated three amendments to the bill.
First,senators discussed the Carper-Corker-Boxer amendment,which ultimately passed. It set the December deadline and removed pension smoothing.
Dennis Slater,president of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers,asked senators to vote for the amendment because it would force Congress to find a long-term solution during this session.
“We’re using gimmicks to pay for something the Constitution says we’re supposed to pay for,” Sen. Bob Corker,R-Tenn.,said.
He was visibly frustrated,slamming his hand on the lectern as he spoke.
“It weakens our pension system,y’all know that,” he said. “It’s generational theft.”
A second amendment would have taken the federal government out of the business of raising money for roads and transit and given it to the states.
Sen. Mike Lee,R-Utah,said instead of kicking the can down the road,Congress should just remove the can. The amendment was voted down.
Sen. Patrick Toomey,R-Pa.,offered an amendment that would have allowed for expedited emergency rebuilding for disaster areas and exempted the rebuilding process from several environmental protection laws. It didn’t meet the necessary 60-vote threshold,either.
Sens. Ben Cardin,D-Md.,and Barbra Boxer,D-Calif.,spoke against the idea,because it could create “significant abuse.”
The Obama administration is frustrated with the situation,because both President Barack Obama and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx have been promoting their own bill — but that’s gone nowhere in Congress.
The short-term solution allows for existing transportation projects to continue,but prevents statehouses from pushing large projects that could span several years.
“We’ve known about this for two years,” Boxer said. “It’s so unfair and this sends a message of indecision.”
Reach reporter Daniel Wheaton at [email protected] or 202-236-9871. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.