Senate approves $109B highway bill, raising pressure on Boehner, House

by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper

The Senate on Wednesday approved a $109 billion transportation bill that would fund road and transit projects for the next two years.

The bipartisan 74-22 vote puts pressure on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the House to either pass a transportation bill of their own or take up the Senate-approved version of the measure ahead of a March 31 deadline for the expiration of current highway funding.

Boehner’s favored transportation bill is a five-year, $260 billion measure that would pay for infrastructure projects with revenue from new domestic oil-and-gas drilling. His party has been divided on the measure, and Boehner has suggested he could move to the Senate bill if he can’t win over his conference.

But it’s not clear that the Senate bill would win support from Boehner’s conference either.

In the Senate, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle hailed the highway bill as bipartisan and a victory for the country.

“This is a jobs bill; 2.8 million jobs hang in the balance,” Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in the minutes leading up to the final vote.

Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) added: “I’ve always said conservatives should be big spenders in two areas: national defense and infrastructure. We have to look at the future so we don’t have to go through this again.”

The vote Wednesday culminated five weeks of debate about amendments to the transportation bill that had threatened to halt the measure’s quick progress toward passage in the upper chamber. An agreement was reached between Democratic and Republican leaders to prevent gridlock on the transportation bill from being permanent.

“We’ve had some scuffles along the way, but that’s what the Senate is all about,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said of the amendment process on the transportation bill.

“Sometimes the rules of the Senate demand scuffle,” Reid said in the final minutes before the final vote on the transportation measure. “We now have a bill that will pass.”

Reid called Wednesday morning for Boehner to act quickly on the bill, and the wide margin of the final Senate vote to approve the legislation might increase pressure on the House to act quickly on the transportation bill when it comes over from the upper chamber.

“[Boehner] indicated that he likely would take up the Senate bill,” Reid said. “I hope that in fact is the case.”

There were many differences between the two chambers’ respective original versions of the transportation measure. The House bill that has since been pulled from consideration would have spent $260 billion over the next five years on transportation projects, while the Senate bill spends $109 billion over the next two years. The House’s original bill also included provisions to tie infrastructure spending to increased domestic oil drilling and included cuts to public transportation funding that were unpopular with Democrats — and some Republicans — in both chambers of Congress.

The Senate’s measure funds transportation projects from traditional sources such as the federal gas tax, which the legislation reauthorizes the collection of, as well as closing of tax loopholes backers said would generate about $10 billion.

The House now has two-and-a-half weeks to act before the current legislation authorizing transportation funding expires.

— Pete Kasperowicz contributed to this report.


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