Senate to Vote on Highway Money 07/29 06:18
The Senate is set to take up legislation to keep federal highway money
flowing to states, with just three days left before the government plans to
start slowing down payments.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate is set to take up legislation to keep federal
highway money flowing to states, with just three days left before the
government plans to start slowing down payments.
The House passed a $10.8 billion bill last week that would pay for highway
and transit aid through the end of May 2015 if transportation spending is
maintained at current levels. Under a schedule outlined by Majority Leader
Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate would take up that bill Tuesday.
But senators who say the House bill uses budgetary gimmicks to pay for roads
and bridges or who want to force Congress to act before the end of the year on
a long-term plan to pay for transportation programs are expected to offer
amendments. If any amendment passes, it would alter the underlying House bill
and set up an 11th-hour showdown between the House and Senate on how to resolve
the differences between their bills.
The Transportation Department says that by Aug. 1 the federal Highway Trust
Fund will no longer have enough money to cover promised aid to states, and the
government will begin to stretch out payments. Congress has kept the trust fund
teetering on the edge of bankruptcy since 2008 through a series of temporary
fixes because lawmakers have been unable to find a politically acceptable,
long-term funding plan. States have been warned to expect an average reduction
of 28 percent in aid payments.
Without action from Congress, the balance in the fund is expected to drop to
zero by late August or early September. Some states already have cut back on
construction projects because of the uncertainty over federal funding.
President Barack Obama and other state and local officials have complained that
the uncertainty over funding is costing jobs.
Dave Bauer, a lobbyist for the American Road and Transportation Builders
Association, said federal aid pays for about 52 percent of the cost of road and
bridge capital projects undertaken every year.
"So if you have 52 percent of your market that on an almost annual or
every-other-year basis is subject to Congress not shutting everything down when
there isn't a great track record on doing that, would you be making long-term
investments and hiring people?" Bauer said.
An amendment sponsored by Democrats Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Barbara
Boxer of California and GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee would provide only $8
billion, just enough to keep highway programs going through the end of this
year. They say their aim is to set up another deadline in order to force
Congress to come up with a long-term solution on how to pay for transportation
programs when lawmakers return to Washington after the November elections and
partisan fervor supposedly will have cooled.
The trust fund is in its current straits because the federal
18.4-cent-a-gallon gas tax and the 24.4-cent-a-gallon diesel tax haven't been
raised in more than 20 years, while the cost of maintaining and expanding the
nation's aging infrastructure has gone up. Cars and trucks are also more
fuel-efficient than they once were and people are driving less per capita.
The most obvious solution would be to raise fuel taxes, but lawmakers are
reluctant to raise taxes in an election year --- especially Republicans for
whom a vote in favor of any tax increase could trigger a backlash from their
"I haven't heard of a single person that doesn't realize this issue has got
to be dealt with, and the way we've been dealing with it is totally
irresponsible," Corker said. "There is tremendous sympathy (in the Senate) for
coming up with a long-term solution."
But under an agreement worked out between Reid and Senate Minority Leader
Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., any amendments will require 60 votes for passage --- a
Another amendment would replace the House bill with a nearly identical bill
approved by the Senate Finance Committee.