House clears five-month extension of highway funding

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, July 15, 2015 - Up against a looming July 31 deadline, the House approved a bill that would avoid halting construction projects across the country and give Congress another five months to develop a long-term funding extension.

The House voted 312-119 to push back the expiration of the Highway Trust Fund to Dec. 18, the Friday before Christmas. Barring a change of schedule that would be the final legislative day of 2015.

The bill (HR 3038) was introduced Monday by House Ways and Means Committee chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and House Transportation Committee chair Bill Shuster, R-Pa.

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The bill's passage sets up a potential clash with the Senate, where Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., favors passing a long-term bill now instead of waiting until December. His committee approved a six-year highway bill, called the DRIVE Act, in June.

The key challenge is finding cost offsets to pay for the bill, given Republican opposition to tax increases.

Ryan agreed with Democrats that a long-term bill is needed but said there isn't time to consider it now, given the July 31 deadline.

“We know we're not going to write that bill in the next two weeks,” Ryan said. “Yes,” we knew this was coming, but it takes a while to do things,” like addressing the funding structure of the program, a nod to Ryan's efforts on tax reform, he added.

House Democrats spoke critically of another short-term extension of the bill; in remarks given on the floor, members pointed out this program has been extended more than 30 times, and there is still no long-term bill. Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer spoke with the transcript of remarks that he gave a year ago today when another extension was voted upon, asking why this issue wasn't fixed last fall or this spring, when extensions were also approved.

The bill would provide $8 billion to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent while leadership discusses a path toward what members on both sides of the aisle hope is a long-term, six-year bill.

In a statement of administrative policy Wednesday morning, the White House offered reluctant support to the bill.

“With surface transportation authorization expiring at the end of July, the unfortunate reality is that, due to inaction, Congress will need to pass a short-term extension of these authorities to keep Federal funding for the Nation's surface transportation system flowing,” the statement said. “While the country cannot continue to rely on short-term patches as an approach to funding the Nation's infrastructure, the Administration supports passage of H.R. 3038 to give the House and Senate the necessary time to complete work on a long-term bill this year that increases investment to meet the Nation's infrastructure needs.”

The statement went on to say that the White House expects Congress will use the allotted time “to pass a multi-year bill with significant increases in investment” before the end of 2015.

The Senate GOP leadership still appears interested in passing a long-term fix before the August recess, which is just nine legislative days away for House members.

“It's ready for the floor and we're counting votes now,” Inhofe said of the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act (DRIVE Act, S. 1647), which unanimously passed out of committee in June. "We need to get it passed, and we're going to do it."

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday evening, Inhofe said he anticipated the DRIVE Act would be on the floor “as soon as we finish the education bill,” which is currently under consideration.

But House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., urged the Senate “to pass this bill as soon as possible and keep our highways funded” in a statement released by his office.

In a statement, Ryan also urged the Senate to act quickly on the House's extension.

“This is the right approach, and the Senate should move quickly to adopt this extension-without any unrelated measures-so that we can provide some certainty and get to work on a multi-year plan," said Ryan.

Private sector reaction has been lukewarm, but resigned. Robyn Boerstling, director of transportation and infrastructure policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, said U.S. manufacturers “deserve a network that will serve our 21st-century needs.” She said she hoped to see this extension lead to a long-term solution.

“With another short-term bandage in hand, Congress must now use this time in earnest and work every day of the next five months to pass a well-funded, multiyear surface transportation authorization by the end of the year to ensure our competitiveness and put Americans back to work,” Boerstling said.

The vote largely ignored party lines in amassing its sizable passing majority. The 312 votes in favor of the measure included 180 Republicans and 132 Democrats. The 119 in opposition consisted of 65 Republicans and 54 Democrats.

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