- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The House passed a short-term extension of highway funding Wednesday and rushed out the door for its August break, setting up a take-or-leave-it scenario in the Senate and a sizable to-do list for a divided Congress this fall.

Lawmakers voted 385-34 to keep road projects moving through Oct. 29 and to fill a $3.3 billion budget hole at the Department of Veterans Affairs so it does not have to close hospitals and clinics.

The House still wants six-year highway bill that would rely on a one-time tax on business income brought back to the U.S. The funds are needed to close a $90 billion gap between anticipated road spending and federal gas tax revenue.

But Republican leaders, facing a Friday deadline to keep money flowing from the highway trust fund, delayed those long-term plans to September.

“Listen, improving bridges, roads and our infrastructure is critical to our economy, but we’re going to need time for the House committees to do their work,” said Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

The Senate is expected to take up the three-month, $8 billion extension before the Friday deadline. Its own six-year bill cleared a procedural hurdle Wednesday by a vote of 65-35, setting up final passage Thursday after a contentious debate with Republican infighting over amendments.

“The push-and-pull between different parties, different members and different chambers is all just part of the democratic rhythm,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

The chambers won’t meld their long-term road bills until September at the earliest, tacking another thorny issue onto a chaotic fall agenda that will include a vote on the nuclear deal with Iran and efforts to break the logjam over fiscal 2016 spending and avert a government shutdown in October.

Congress must reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration by Sept. 30 and it is fixing for a late-year fight on whether to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

Democrats blasted Republican leaders for adding to the list by punting on highways once again. Congress hasn’t passed a long-term highway bill in a decade.

Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat, compared the series of short-term patches to squeezing a tube of toothpaste to eke out the last bit.

“Can I get one more? Can I get one more?” he said, holding up a tube as a prop. “We’re going to be right back down here, squeezing to get a little bit.”

Democrats also fumed that Congress will decamp without reauthorizing the federal Export-Import Bank, a lapsed agency that the Senate voted to revive late Monday through its multiyear highway bill.

A product of the New Deal, the bank known as “Ex-Im” financed the sale of U.S. goods overseas for decades before its charter expired June 30, meaning it cannot take on new business.

Conservatives say the bank is a crooked source of corporate welfare, but the White House and other supporters say it has bolstered job creation and should have been part of any highway bill passed this month.

House Republican leaders refused to consider the bill brokered by Mr. McConnell and Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, that included the bank.

They said the deal wasn’t fully funded and it would be impossible for lawmakers to study a 1,000-page bill before adjourning Thursday.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the bank should have been added to Wednesday’s bill because it has majority support in the chamber.

“Exercise our responsibility to the American people and to American workers, and let’s pass the Export-Import Bank today before we go home,” he told Republican leaders.

He didn’t get his way, prompting conservative groups to take credit for leaving the bank in limbo for at least five more weeks.

“Despite the very best efforts of the Washington establishment, the Export-Import Bank remains closed,” said Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

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