Senate Alters Highway Bill

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Senate on Tuesday voted to change the funding and timing of a House bill to keep federal highway funds flowing to states in an effort to force Congress to come to grips with chronic funding problems that have plagued transportation programs in recent years.

The House could accept the Senate’s changes or reject them and send the bill back to the Senate. Whichever outcome, a highway funding bill is still expected to clear Congress before lawmakers adjourn for the summer later this week.

The Senate took up a $10.8 bill the House passed last week that would have kept the federal Highway Trust Fund solvent through next May and voted 66-31 to strip out controversial funding provisions, leaving $8.1 billion.

That’s enough to keep programs going only through Dec. 19. The amendment’s sponsors – Democrats Tom Carper of Delaware and Barbara Boxer of California and Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee – said they want Congress to reach a long-term funding solution this year and they hope that will be easier after the November election when partisan tempers will presumably have cooled.

The vote on passage of the bill was 79-18. All area senators voted for the bill, except for Ohio Republican Rob Portman.

Congress has shored up the trust fund four times since 2008. Lawmakers said they don’t want to do another short-term patch.

“I remain deeply concerned that if we kick this can into next year that the next Congress – like so many Congresses before it – will be unable to summon the courage necessary to write a long-term plan for our nation’s infrastructure,” Carper said.

The trust fund is in its current straits because the federal 18.4-cent-a-gallon gas tax and the 24.4-cent-a-gallon diesel tax- the fund’s chief source of revenue – haven’t been increased in more than 20 years, while the cost of maintaining and expanding the nation’s aging infrastructure has gone up. The fuel-efficiency of cars and trucks is also increasing while people are driving less per capita.

One solution would be to raise fuel taxes, but lawmakers are reluctant to do that in an election year – especially Republicans for whom a vote in favor of any tax increase could trigger a backlash from their party’s base.

Senators also said they objected to way the House bill raised money for highway programs. More than half the $10.8 billion in the House bill was raised by letting companies defer required contributions to their pension plans – thus increasing the taxes those companies pay – to help fund highways. Lawmakers said such “pension smoothing” will cost the government money in the long run and undermine the financial stability of pension funds. In its place, senators promised to raise equivalent revenue by making it harder for people to claim tax deductions and credits they don’t qualify for.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, declared that his chamber would not accept Senate changes to the House bill’s financing provisions.