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Obama’s Embrace of GOP Highway Fix Frustrates Senators Pushing Long-Term Deal

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A group of Senators focused on forcing action on a new highway bill expressed disappointment with President Barack Obama for backing a House-GOP stopgap measure that they argue would encourage kicking the can down the road. “Yes,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., when asked if he felt let down by the president for backing the House plan , which passed the chamber Tuesday, and would keep funds flowing to transportation projects through May.  

“I think the White House is fearful that anything they are for the Republicans would be against,” Murphy said.  

Murphy said there’s a sense of inertia in Congress regarding the highway bill, in part, due to current low borrowing costs.  

“It is easy to see why people would ultimately just continue to push the can down the road because the borrowing costs are still relatively low,” Murphy said adding that it may lamentably take a disaster, like a collapsed bridge, to stir action on a long-term funding source.  

Murphy and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., have proposed an increase in the federal gasoline and diesel taxes by six cents in each of the next two years for a total of 12 cents; the plan would also index the gas tax to inflation.  

Murphy said that he and Corker have been getting quiet support for their plan, but it’s unlikely that anything would come of it before the election.  

“That’s why I think there is a chance that if we were able to revisit this in the lame duck there is a chance we could cobble together the votes in the Senate,” Murphy said.  

Congress has to come up with about $10 billion to plug the shortfall needed to fund transportation projects through the end of the year, given that the Highway Trust Fund — the collection of gas tax receipts doled out to states to pay for surface transportation projects — is expected to run out of money this month.  

Failure to act would strand transportation projects around the country.  

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the House plan would surely invite more extensions of current law rather than push Congress to pass a new highway bill with a sustainable funding source.  

“We are convinced that simply kicking the can down the road will end up meaning we kick the can down the road again at the end of May,” Carper said. “We ought to use the lame duck productively” by having the patch expire at the end of December.  

Asked if he was disappointed that Obama backed the House plan, Carper said, “The White House, fortunately, doesn’t get to vote on this, we do in the Senate.”  

But with Democrats committed to not letting the trust fund run dry, the House bill may be the only measure that could pass both chambers.  

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., indicated Tuesday that he may hold votes on the House bill, a patch cleared by the Senate Finance Committee last week with slightly different offsets from the House bill, and a proposal from Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who has also been pushing for a stopgap that expires in December.  

The “intention is to have votes on all three,” Reid said.  

Reid could stack the votes in a way that leaves the Obama-backed House bill as the last option for Congress to keep funds flowing to transportation projects.  

Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he backs getting a legislative result in the lame duck. But he decided to draft a 10-month extension, similar to the House measure, in order to help ensure that the patch gets done.  

“When it became clear that the House wouldn’t give, there wouldn’t be any bipartisan support for it, I said how are we going to have influence for these other values…and [preserve] payfors that the country feel strongly about,” he said.  

The House bill uses pension smoothing as the biggest offset, while the Senate measure’s biggest offset are tax compliance initiatives. Pension smoothing had been targeted by some Democrats to offset extending unemployment insurance, while others sought to use it to restore for health and pension benefits for coal miners.  

The Senate panel passed the measure Thursday on a voice vote. The House measure cleared the Ways and Means Committee with no Democratic support, Wyden noted.  

But the House passed its patch with overwhelming support on the floor, 367 to 55.

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