WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday voted to change the funding and timing of a House bill to keep federal highway funds flowing to states in an effort to force Congress to come to grips with chronic funding problems that have plagued transportation programs in recent years.
The House could accept the Senate’s changes or reject them and send the bill back to the Senate. Whichever outcome, a highway funding bill is still expected to clear Congress before lawmakers adjourn for the summer later this week.
The Senate took up a $10.8 billion bill the House passed last week that would have kept the federal Highway Trust Fund solvent through next May and voted, 66-31, to strip out controversial funding provisions, leaving $8.1 billion.
That’s enough to keep programs going only through Dec. 19. The amendment’s sponsors — Democrats Tom Carper of Delaware and Barbara Boxer of California and Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee — said they want Congress to reach a long-term funding solution this year, and they hope that will be easier after the November election, when partisan tempers will presumably have cooled. The vote on passage of the bill was 79-18.
Congress has shored up the trust fund four times since 2008. Senate lawmakers said they don’t want to do another short-term patch.
“I remain deeply concerned that if we kick this can into next year, that the next Congress — like so many Congresses before it — will be unable to summon the courage necessary to write a long-term plan for our nation’s infrastructure,” Mr. Carper said.
The trust fund is in its current straits because the federal 18.4-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax and the 24.4-cent-a-gallon diesel tax— the fund’s chief source of revenue — haven’t been increased in more than 20 years, while the cost of maintaining and expanding the nation’s aging infrastructure has gone up. The fuel-efficiency of cars and trucks is also increasing, while people are driving less per capita.
One solution would be to raise fuel taxes, but lawmakers are reluctant to do that in an election year — especially Republicans for whom a vote in favor of any tax increase could trigger a backlash from their party’s base.
“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,” said Mr. Corker, who has bucked his party by introducing a bill to raise the gas tax.
Senators also said they objected to way the House bill raised money for highway programs. More than half of the $10.8 billion in the House bill was raised by letting companies defer required contributions to their pension plans — thus increasing the taxes those companies pay — to help fund highways. Lawmakers said such “pension smoothing” will cost the government money in the long run and undermine the financial stability of pension funds. In its place, senators promised to raise equivalent revenue by making it harder for people to claim tax deductions and credits they don’t qualify for.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, declared that his chamber would not accept Senate changes to the House bill’s financing provisions.
“I just want to make clear, if the Senate sends a highway bill over here with those provisions, we’re going to strip it out and put the House-passed provisions back in and send it back to the Senate,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., acknowledged that the Senate may have to take up the issue all over again if the House sends back a bill. But he said Congress will send a bill to President Barack Obama for his signature before adjourning for the summer.United States government - Barack Obama - United States Congress - John Boehner - United States Senate - Harry Reid - United States House of Representatives - Bob Corker - Barbara Boxer - Thomas Carper