by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
The House voted Wednesday to approve an $8 billion bill that would extend federal transportation funding until the end of October, sending it to the Senate with just two days to go before the nation’s road and transit spending expires.
The bill passed in a 385-34 vote, with Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) voting present. Senators are expected to accept the patch to prevent an interruption in the nation’s infrastructure spending during the busy summer construction season.
The House adjourned for the traditional August recess after the vote, forcing the Senate’s hand.
But senators are planning to stay in Washington next week, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to finish a six-year transportation bill to jumpstart conference negotiations on a final bill.
Republican leaders sought to downplay the squabbling between the chambers as they punted the highway debate to the fall.
“Sen. McConnell and I, while we have a disagreement over this bill — we’ve had one — we both want to get to a long-term highway bill,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said ahead of the vote.
“And Sen. McConnell and I have, frankly, worked very closely trying to minimize the differences,” he continued. “And so I’m confident as we get into this fall we’re going to have … pretty smooth sailing.”
The fight over road funding has cut across both parties, with Senate and House Republicans pitted against one another, and Democrats also divided in the Senate.
House Republicans earlier this month approved a five-month funding extension, seeking to buy time for negotiations with the White House over a long-term bill funded by tax reform.
But rather than take up the five-month bill, McConnell negotiated a long-term funding measure with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and quickly brought it to the floor.
While that measure is still expected to pass the Senate, it got a chilly reception from the House, with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) refusing to bring it up for a vote.
The short-term funding measure that was approved on Wednesday would continue highway funding until Oct. 29 — setting up a new deadline for Congress when they return to Washington in September.
“We’ll conference the legislation we pass with what the House passes and then send a unified bill to President Obama,” McConnell said in a floor speech Wednesday.
“In the meantime, we’ll work with our friends in the House to give them the space they need to develop a multiyear highway bill,” McConnell continued. “We’ll take up that bill once the House sends it to us, and we’ll continue working in the interim to finish our own multiyear highway bill, a bill that’s fiscally responsible and won’t raise taxes by a penny.”
McConnell also sought to downplay the infighting between Republicans over the highway bill this week as he acquiesced to the House’s demand for a temporary patch.
“Late nights of vigorous legislating and sometimes unpredictable outcomes might make some reach for the aspirin, but these are the hallmarks of a functioning Congress,” he said.
“The push and pull between different parties, different members and different chambers is all just part of the democratic rhythm,” McConnell continued. “That’s especially true when you’re talking about a measure as complicated and consequential as a multiyear highway bill.”
Congress is grappling with a funding shortfall for transportation that is estimated to be around $16 billion per year. Since 2005, lawmakers have not passed a transportation bill that lasted longer than two years.
The decision to fund highways for three months also means the Export-Import Bank’s charter will remain expired through the August recess.
The Senate highway bill includes a four-year renewal of the bank, which has run into opposition from conservatives but is backed by the White House, Democrats and a portion of the GOP.
But the House’s three-month bill does not include Ex-Im, leaving the bank in limbo.
The House patch includes language allowing the Veterans Affairs Department to shift $3 billion within the agency to shore up a budget shortfall so hospitals and other facilities don’t close in August, aides said.
The legislation also would ensure that veterans with service-related disabilities could use health saving accounts.