Last night the Senate voted 78 to 19 to resume federal funding for highways and safety after Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., agreed to remove his objection to a bill containing a short-term extension of the federal highway program.

In an agreement with Senate leaders, Bunning dropped his objection in return for a vote on an amendment that offered an alternative way to pay for the $10 billion measure, which covers unemployment benefits and other programs as well as the one-month extension of the highway program. The agreement also gives Bunning the chance to offer amendments on an upcoming Senate jobs bill. His funding alternative, which would have offset the $10 billion by closing a tax loophole, was defeated.

The votes, which were held around 9 p.m. last night, brought to an end several days of high drama in Washington and in many states. Bunning's tactics threw a wrench into the complex mechanism that manages the flow of federal dollars to state highway projects and safety programs, and resulted in forced furloughs for some 2,000 federal transportation employees.

They also drew scorn from many.

For example, in remarks to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee in the House, described Bunning's actions as "deranged."

Bunning, for his part, remained committed to his purpose, if not his tactics. "The question is whether or not we as a government are going to pay for what we spend," he said during debate on the Senate floor.

Following the vote, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood applauded the Senate's action. "I am pleased that the Senate has acted to break its logjam and extend the Highway Trust Fund for another 30 days," he said in a statement. "This means that our valued employees may return to work. It also means that their important work getting the economy back on its feet, ensuring Americans' safety and keeping critical construction projects moving will be able to continue."
DOT employees who had been furloughed, including many at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, were to return to work this morning.

Next up on the highway agenda is House consideration of a Senate measure that will extend the current highway program until the end of the year. The measure, which is expected to pass, will set the stage for House and Senate consideration of a six-year highway program. For more details, see the next issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.