WASHINGTON – The Senate agreed Wednesday to take up a sweeping transportation bill a little over a week before states will face a cutoff of highway and transit aid in the middle of the summer construction season.
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The GOP-drafted bill would set policy and authorize transportation programs for six years, but provides only enough to pay for the programs for three years.
The vote was 62 to 36. Sixty votes were necessary to proceed.
Despite an array of concerns Democrats voiced with the bill over the past two days — including that some provisions may undermine safety, that transit programs didn't received their fair share of funding and that the spending offsets include budget gimmickry — 14 Democrats and two independents joined with 46 Republicans to go forward with the bill.
"The bill still needs some fixing but tonight it was a question of whether or not we even have a bill to fix," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. "If we don't have a long-term highway funding bill, we won't have the money we need to repair and build roads and bridges."
The vote puts the Senate on a path toward likely passage of the measure by the middle of next week. That would set up a possible confrontation with the House, which has passed a five-month extension of transportation programs. GOP leaders there expressed reluctance to take up a Senate bill of more than 1,000 pages that they've only had days to consider. They say they could do a better job of drafting a long-term bill themselves if given a few more months.
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"I don't see the Senate (bill) flying in the House," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters earlier in the day.
An amendment to renew the authority of the Export-Import Bank, whose charter expired at the end of June, is expected to be offered to the bill. The bank, which helps U.S. companies sell their products overseas, has been largely non-controversial over the years, but conservatives recently targeted it as an example of what they called "crony capitalism."
The transportation bill, unveiled just over 24-hours before the vote, contained extensive changes to previous committee-passed bills that were negotiated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, over the past week in an effort to win Democratic support.
The bill authorizes the government to spend $317 billion over six years for highway and transit programs, but revenue from the federal 18.4 cents a gallon tax and other transportation taxes and fees is forecast to bring in only $240 billion over that period. Under Congress' self-imposed fiscal restraints, the bill's sponsors needed to find an extra $77 billion in revenue increases or spending cuts to pay for the measure. They came up with only $47.5 billion over 10 years — four years longer than the length of the bill.
Congress has been struggling to pass a long-term transportation bill for nearly a decade, but has been unable to come up with the money to pay for it. The gas tax hasn't been increased in more than two decades, and the money it brings in hasn't kept pace with inflation. But raising the gas tax is politically unpopular and lawmakers fear a voter backlash.
At the same time, many areas of the country are facing growing congestion and struggling to increase the capacity of their transportation infrastructure. The cost gets even more expensive when the repair and replacement of aging bridges, highways and transit systems is factored in.
President Barack Obama has called for significant increases in highway, transit and rail spending paid for by forcing U.S. companies to pay taxes on profits they park overseas. Some Democrats said it might be better to try to get a deal later this year that dedicates revenue from changes to corporate tax laws to transportation, most likely a larger pot of money.
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