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Congress averts shutdown of highway program for three months

March 29, 2012|By Richard Simon

Congress averted a threatened shutdown of the federal highway program but continues to face a bumpy ride in crafting a multi-year transportation bill that seeks to create jobs and ease traffic congestion.

The Republican-controlled House on Thursday approved a three-month extension in highway spending, and the Democratic-led Senate grudgingly followed suit, maintaining the government’s authority to collect gasoline taxes and fund projects beyond Saturday.

As has become all too familiar, lawmakers acted at the last minute to prevent the loss of $110 million a day in tax revenues, the slowing down of projects and the furlough of thousands of federal workers.

Democrats have urged the House to pass the two-year, $109-billion transportation bill that cleared the Senate with bipartisan support. House Republican leaders say they need more time to try to draft their own version, one that includes a controversial expansion of oil drilling to generate money for road projects.

"This is like a bad soap opera," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. The measure extending authority for the highway program to June 30 passed the House 266 to 158, and the Senate by voice vote.

Democrats said that another extension – the ninth since the last big transportation bill expired in 2009 – would slow the nation’s economic recovery by making it difficult for transportation agencies to plan projects because of uncertainty over how much money they will receive from Washington.

But House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) sarcastically suggested sending for the House physician to cure the “amnesia” of Democrats who have supported similar extensions in the past.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, warned that extending the current level of spending – without additional revenues – brings the highway trust fund closer to insolvency.

"What kind of way is this to run a government?’" asked Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who successfully included in the Senate bill a measure important to her state that would steer a large chunk of BP’s penalties from the 2010 gulf spill to restoring coastal ecosystems and rebuilding the local economy. She vowed to oppose any more short-term extensions.

Passage of a transportation bill this year has been complicated by election-year politics and a gas tax that isn’t bringing in as much money because of more fuel-efficient cars.

The White House, urging the House to act swiftly on a longer-term bill, said in a statement that while it is "critical that we not put American jobs and safety at risk and hurt our economic recovery by allowing funding to run out, it is not enough for us to continue to patch together our nation’s infrastructure future with short-term Band-Aids."

richard.simon@latimes.com

Original source: Congress averts shutdown of highway program – for three months

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