The Senate passed a short-term patch to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent until December 19, in effect setting up a vote this year on a long-term highway program.
The $8 billion bill now goes to the House, which must act quickly if Congress is to keep the fund from going over the precipice.
Unless a patch is signed into law before August 1, the Department of Transportation will be forced to cut reimbursements to states for highway projects that are planned and under way. Thousand of projects and hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake.
Speaker John Boehner has said the House will move quickly, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., reported.
In the same Tuesday session, the Senate rejected an amendment by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would have gradually reduced federal fuel taxes and devolved highway funding responsibility to the states.
It also rejected a bid by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to accelerate highway repairs by cutting environmental and permitting requirements.
The session began with a 71-26 vote in favor of a bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee that would have patched the Highway Trust Fund through next May.
This bill was based on a measure already passed by the House, but changed some provisions of that proposal. Both bills had the same funding, $10.6 billion, and set May as the end of the funding period. The Senate version, however, reduced the amount of funding that would be covered by so-called “pension smoothing.”
“Smoothing” refers to a temporary lowering of pension funding requirements to increase business profits. Those presumed profits are taxed, producing a presumed increase in government revenue.
The House bill overused “smoothing,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair of the Senate Finance Committee and co-author with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, of the Senate bill.
But in the end, the Senate decided to dispense with “smoothing” altogether.
By a 66-31 vote it passed the $8 billion December patch pushed by Sens. Corker, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Tom Carper, D-Del. It contains no “smoothing” money, relying instead on transfers from the general fund and from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund, among other sources.
“Smoothing is a total gimmick that loses money,” said Corker in a passionate speech that Boxer described as the “most honest” she has heard on the Senate floor.
“It’s an embarrassment that the Senate has not come together to pass a long-term solution (to highway funding),” Corker said.
The bill will force the Senate to act responsibly before year-end, he said.
“When people say they just don’t think we can find a solution – you gotta be kidding me!” he said.
Lee described his amendment to devolve funding to the states as a “new approach” to get around the “centralized bureaucratic status quo.”
Boxer replied that he was proposing “the complete and utter destruction of a system that the states support.”
His amendment failed 69 – 28.
The overall bill passed by a wide margin: 79 – 18.
Reaction from the industry was quick and positive.
American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves said the short-term patch is the best way to get to a long-term highway bill. “The Senate has put Congress on a path to solving these issues this year,” he said in a statement.
“We urge the House to follow suit and to pass the Senate’s Highway Trust Fund fix and then get on to the work of passing a long-term highway bill when Congress returns from recess.”