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Senate Clears Disaster Aid, Transportation Measures

The Senate cleared legislation today to provide about $7 billion in emergency disaster aid and a House-passed transportation package that averts a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.

“What’s happened this week in the Senate is an example of what can happen if people work together,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. “About 2 million people are breathing a sigh of relief because they are going to have jobs Monday.”

The Nevada Democrat had been threatening to hold votes this weekend in an effort to force action on the transportation bill before midnight Friday, when funding for the FAA is set to expire and some workers would face furloughs.

The bill, passed 92-6, includes a four-month FAA funding extension and a six-month funding extension for surface transportation programs, scheduled to expire at the end of the month. Before final passage, the Senate rejected two Republican amendments.

The measure was being held up by Sen. Tom Coburn over his opposition to a provision that would require states to set aside funds for projects such as bike paths, sound walls and decorative highway signs.

The Oklahoma Republican argued that the provision forces states to prioritize bike paths over bridge repair. He reversed course after striking a deal with Democrats to include language in the long-term transportation authorization bill allowing states to opt out of the requirement.

“He feels more comfortable on what we are going to be doing in the future on the highway bill,” Reid said of Coburn’s move.

Before reaching the deal, Reid had sought to give Coburn a vote on an amendment addressing his concern, according to Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who suggested Coburn declined the offer because he likely would not have prevailed.

A vote on a similar proposal in 2009 failed to muster enough support to win adoption, Boxer said.

The delay could have resulted in the second partial shutdown of the FAA this year because of a standoff in Congress. The agency was without funding for about three weeks this summer as lawmakers wrangled over cuts to rural air service subsidies. A deal was finally struck and sent to the president Aug. 5.

Meanwhile, Senate passage of the disaster funding, 62 to 37, sets up a confrontation with House GOP leaders who are planning to provide $3.6 billion for disaster relief and offset $1 billion of the funding.

The Senate defeated two Republican amendments seeking to offset the funding.

Coburn’s proposal to pay for the disaster funding through savings from termination of duplicative federal programs won 54 votes, six short of the 60 required for adoption.

An amendment by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to pay for the disaster assistance by rescinding fiscal 2011 funds for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department was defeated, 20-78.

House Republican leaders included the disaster funding in the continuing resolution they plan to pass before the end of next week.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said the House bill is “wholly insufficient.”

The Louisiana Democrat wrote a letter today to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) expressing her concerns that the GOP proposal would not provide enough money and that offsetting the money would unnecessarily hold up the aid while Congress debates how to pay for it.

“I am not sure how all this is going to work out. We are willing to negotiate in good faith … but the CR will not suffice for the challenge before this nation,” Landrieu said after the vote, adding that relief cannot be provided in increments.

The disaster aid “should be reliable, it should go through next [fiscal] year, it shouldn’t be done on a six-week or continuing resolution basis, and we will just have to negotiate with the House,” Landrieu continued. “Hopefully [House GOP leaders] will see this strong vote, and they will be hearing from people at home.”

Next week in the Senate, Reid said he plans to move to Trade Adjustment Assistance funding for displaced workers, which could be a path toward action on free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

Reid said he isn’t “a big fan” of the trade agreements, but there is strong support in the bipartisan chamber.

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