WASHINGTON- Congress emphatically approved legislation Friday preserving jobs on transportation projects from coast to coast and avoiding interest rate increases on new loans to millions of college students, giving lawmakers campaign-season bragging rights on what may be their biggest economic achievement before the November elections.
The bill sent for President Barack Obama's signature enables just over $100 billion to be spent on highway, mass transit and other transportation programs over the next two years, projects that would have expired Saturday without congressional action. It also ends a bare-knuckle political battle over student loans that raged since spring, a proxy fight over which party was best helping voters muddle through the economic downturn.
Under the bill, interest rates of 3.4 percent for subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduates will continue for another year, instead of doubling for new loans beginning on Sunday as scheduled by a law passed five years ago to save money.
Had the measure failed, interest rates would have mushroomed to 6.8 percent for 7.4 million students expected to get the loans over the coming year, adding an extra $1,000 to the average cost of each loan and antagonizing students - and their parents - four months from Election Day.
The Democratic-led Senate sent the measure to Obama by a 74-19 vote, just minutes after the Republican-run House approved it 373-52. The unusual display of harmony, in a bitterly partisan year, signaled lawmakers' eagerness to claim credit for providing transportation jobs, to avert higher costs for students and their families and to avoid being embarrassed had the effort run aground.
This year has seen the two parties mostly drive each other's plans for tax breaks and economic revival into a stalemate, although lawmakers have enacted bills retaining the Social Security payroll tax cut for a year and renewing a government agency that promotes U.S. exports.
"It's important for Congress to act, not just talk about problems we have but to get things done," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a chief House author of the transportation measure.
"We have a bill that will boost this economy," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a sponsor who said the measure would create or save 2.8 million jobs. "We have a bill that is supported by conservatives and liberals, progressives and moderates. I think this is a great day."
All the no votes were cast by Republicans.
The compromise ended up sprinkled with unrelated nuggets dealing with Asian carp, roll-your-own tobacco and federal timber aid. But its most significant provisions dealt with transportation and student aid.
The final transportation measure dropped a provision - which had drawn an Obama veto threat - that would have forced government approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Texas coast.