Senate Passes Highway Patch Boehner Plans to Reject

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 29, 2014 at 8:43pm

The Senate Tuesday approved a short-term patch to keep funds flowing to highway projects through Dec. 19, but Speaker John A. Boehner has already promised to strip the Senate provisions and send the House-passed bill right back.  

After the Senate’s version of the bill passed 79 to 18 — Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah called it a “free vote…because the House is going to send this right back, they are going to strip everything out — after they’ve left” for the August recess.  

Boehner is playing hardball.  

“I just want to make clear, if the Senate sends a highway bill over here…we’re gonna strip it out and put the House- passed provisions back in and send it back to the Senate,” the Ohio Republican told reporters Tuesday morning. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also predicted that the House package would likely be the patch that the Senate ends up passing.  

“Yes, there will be a highway bill,” McConnell told reporters. “It either will be finished today in the Senate with the Senate adopting the House bill, or, I believe the speaker has made it clear that if it goes back to the House, it will come back over here the way the House passed it the first time.”  

“But in any event, we will have a highway measure pass here before the end of the week.” McConnell said.  

When asked about the matter, Senate Majority Leader Reid, D-Nev., would only pledge “We’re going to pass a highway bill before we leave here.”  

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 as soon as the end of the month.  

Failure to act would cut off funding for transportation projects around the country and affect 700,000 construction jobs.  

The Senate’s proposal is similar to a plan drafted and passed by the Senate Finance Committee except that it would now sunset the authorization on Dec. 19 in order to force Congress to draft and pass a longer-term proposal in the lame duck session after the midterm elections.  

The original Finance panel package funded transportation projects through May. The tax committee’s package was approved by the Senate Tuesday 71 to 26.  

The Senate then voted to change the Finance package with an amendment sponsored by Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. The amendment was approved 66 to 31.  

Along with cutting off funding after Dec. 19, the Boxer amendment also dropped the pension smoothing offset from the Finance Committee package. Pension smoothing — which delays payments made by corporations to their pension funds, temporarily boosting their profits and taxes paid to the government — had been targeted by some Democrats to offset an unemployment extension, while others sought to use it to restore for health and pension benefits for coal miners.  

Those details differ from the House-passed bill, which would fund transportation programs through May and uses pension smoothing as its biggest offset.  

Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., praised the Senate’s action and held out hope that the Senate proposal could be considered in the House.  

“The Finance Committee outlined a clear, bipartisan plan forward,” Wyden said. “And the Senate stood behind the merits of our amendment. And I’ve said from the very beginning we aren’t going to let the clock run out and we’re gonna get this done and I plan to talk to the House leadership on both sides as soon as possible.”  

Boxer also lauded the Senate’s action.  

“By an overwhelming vote, the Senate agreed to extend surface transportation programs until December 19th , which will ensure that the Congress comes together as soon as possible to put together a multi-year bill,” Boxer said in a release. “Our bill also turns away from smoke and mirrors by doing away with ‘pension smoothing,’ which is a dangerous gimmick that could lead to pensions being underfunded. My deepest thanks go to Senators Wyden, Carper, and Corker for their leadership.”  

Niels Lesniewski and Bridget Bowman contributed to this article.