- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2012

After failing to agree on a long-range plan to keep federal highway and transit programs running, Congress on Thursday returned to one of its most tried-and-true tactics of the past year: It kicked the matter down the road by passing a stopgap funding measure.

The move averts a shutdown of federally funded transportation projects, which was set to happen Sunday.

The Republican-controlled House struggled for weeks to write a multiyear transportation bill, and twice earlier this week failed to clear short-term deals. Facing the weekend funding deadline, Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, finally was able to get a 90-day funding extension through the chamber Thursday by a vote of 266-158.

The Democrat-run Senate bowed to pressure from the House and agreed to the stopgap measure by a voice vote, but not before Democrats lashed out at House Republican leaders for refusing to bring up the Senate’s two-year, $109 billion transportation bill, which passed earlier this month with broad bipartisan support.

“Kicking the can down the road for another 90 days is not good policy,” said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate transportation committee. “While I am relieved that we’ve been able to avoid letting our job-critical and surface transportation safety programs lapse, I’m frustrated that the House has been unable to act on the Senate’s bipartisan two-year reauthorization.”

The White House on Thursday took the House to task for not passing a long-term transportation bill but stopped short of saying the president would veto the 90-day extension.

While the Senate transportation bill sailed through the upper chamber and passed by a vote of 74-22, Mr. Boehner’s Republican colleagues rejected his proposed five-year, $260 billion version even before he could bring it to the floor for a vote. Some Republicans said the measure was too big and expensive. Others complained it cut too much from favored projects in their districts.

The speaker then suggested he would accept the Senate’s bill. While the measure was supported by Democrats and some moderate Republicans, he later backed off amid opposition from conservatives in his ranks.

Doing nothing would suspend the federal Highway Trust Fund beginning Sunday, meaning that transportation projects nationwide would screech to a halt. Such a move would adversely affect an estimated 1.8 million construction-related jobs. The government could also lose about $110 million a day in uncollected gas and diesel taxes.

Democrats warned the short-term extension also will hurt jobs because states will hold off on implementing road projects until a long-term deal is in place.

“We can’t move forward with the planning of our highways, our bridges, our transit systems with another short-term extension,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat. “This takes us to the middle of the summer — we lose the construction season on getting transportation work done.”

But Mr. Boehner said he had concerns with the Senate bill, saying it included “gimmicks” and that it would have drained the trust fund.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica, Florida Republican, who crafted the House’s failed long-term plan, said the extension will give him time to work on another long-term proposal.

“We’ll converse with the speaker and we’re going to try our best to get as long a term [deal] as we can and get it up as soon as we can and get to conference [with the Senate] as soon as we can,” Mr. Mica said.

When the Senate re-addresses the transportation funding issue again is unclear. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, on Thursday said the chamber’s first significant item of business when the chamber returns April 16 from a two-week break will be to take up the proposed “Buffett rule” tax, which calls for people earning at least $1 million annually pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes.

Only 10 Republicans voted against the House stopgap measure, while 37 Democrats joined 229 Republicans to support it. Democrats crossing party lines to vote “yes[“] included Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen, both of Maryland.

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