- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 5, 2015

The House approved a $325 billion highway bill Thursday that authorizes six years of road and transit projects, but only pays for the first three years’ worth, as new Speaker Paul Ryan scored his first major piece of legislation.

Lawmakers debated more than 100 amendments over the last three days as an early down payment on Mr. Ryan’s pledge of a more open process in the House. And the process appeared to pay off, with an overwhelming 363-64 vote to approve the bill.

“This is a good start. It’s a glimpse of how we should be doing the people’s business,” Mr. Ryan said at his weekly press conference.

Senators have passed a different version, and the two sides now must meet to hammer out a compromise along with the White House, which has called for even more funding to fix crumbling bridges and neglected roads.

Only six Democrats opposed the bill, while 58 Republicans voted “no,” including many hard-right members who objected to provisions attached to the legislation that revive the federal Export-Import Bank, a controversial New Deal-era agency that finances the sale of U.S. goods overseas. Its charter lapsed on June 30.

The White House has made the bank, known as “Ex-Im,” a priority, and was happy it was part of the legislation — though officials panned the rest of the bill.

“There continues to be significant room for improvement. And we’re hopeful that the impending conference between the Senate and the House to reconcile the differences in that bill will provide an important opportunity for strengthening this critical piece of legislation,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

Congress hasn’t passed a multiyear highway bill since 2005. That one expired in 2009, and Congress has passed a series of short-term extensions since then.

The latest patch expires Nov. 20, so Congress is scrambling to complete its multiyear bill by Thanksgiving and give states the assurance they need to conduct long-range planning.

“Today the House voted to give our infrastructure and our economy a much-needed shot in the arm,” said Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who authored the bill with ranking member Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the panel.

The bill authorizes six years of projects but only pays for half of that period, relying on revenue from the federal gas tax and a mix of other fees and cuts the Senate cobbled together when it passed its own highway bill in July.

Mr. Shuster has said conference negotiators will try to free up funding for the latter years, potentially through a one-time tax on business income brought back to the U.S. to close the gap between anticipated roads spending and what the federal gas tax brings in.

Democrats grumbled about some of the existing offsets this week, such as allowing the IRS to use private debt collectors.

They also wanted to vote on raising the gas tax 15 cents, to 33.4 cents per gallon, but said the GOP blocked them from offering the amendment.

Democrats did, however, praise a faction of Republicans for helping them reject amendments that could have hampered their efforts to revive the export bank.

The Senate previously voted to reauthorize the bank as part of its highway debate, though Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, had been reluctant to bring up a standalone measure that passed the House after a majority of the chamber signed a discharge petition to force it onto the floor.

The political action arm of The Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups had urged lawmakers to vote against the highway bill, saying it relied on funding gimmicks and that Ex-Im should stay dead.

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