House set to vote on stopgap highway funding extension
Bill sets up fight with Senate over banking agency
WASHINGTON — House Republicans announced plans to hold a quick vote Wednesday on a three-month highway spending extension, as Congress stared down a deadline to act or see states lose money for road projects during the summer driving season.
The leadership-driven plan would have the House vote on the legislation Wednesday, and then leave town for a five-week summer recess. The Senate would be forced to follow suit or face a lapse in highway programs.
The approach amounts to an admission of failure to come up with a longer-term bill despite claims from all sides that that is the goal. And it kicks the issue down the road to what is shaping up as a messy fall on Capitol Hill, with deadlines on President Obama’s Iran deal and funding to keep the government open, among other thorny issues.
‘‘I want a long-term highway bill that’s fully paid for. And that’s been the goal all year. It continues to be the goal,’’ said Speaker John Boehner. ‘‘We’ve been trying to do this for four years. It’s time to get it across the finish line.’’
The decision comes after the House and Senate clashed on dueling versions of the highway legislation.
The House was pushing a five-month extension that could allow time to craft a much longer-term bill paid for with a tax reform deal sought by leaders of both parties. The Senate embraced a six-year bill that is expected to pass in the next couple days, though only three of those years are paid for.
But neither chamber would accept the other’s approach, leaving the short-term extension as the only way out.
Authority for federal highway aid payments to states will expire Friday at midnight without action. At the same time, if Congress doesn’t act before then, the balance in the federal Highway Trust Fund is forecast to drop below a minimum cushion of $4 billion that’s necessary to keep aid flowing smoothly to states.
The House’s three-month bill also includes $3.4 billion to fill a budget hole that the Department of Veterans Affairs says would force it to close hospitals and clinics nationwide. Republicans agreed to it as a necessity, while complaining about the VA’s failure to anticipate the problem.
It does not include the Senate’s language reviving the Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that underwrites loans to help foreign customers buy US goods. The bank expired June 30 amid conservative opposition. The House’s approach ensures that the bank will stay dead at least into the fall, with prospects for reviving it uncertain at that point.
Lawmakers in both chambers expressed hope of using the extra time to work on a longer-term highway bill.
‘‘It’s frustrating, but the only thing worse than a short-term extension would be to allow funding to run out, so it’s the best we can do right now,’’ said Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican.
Said Representative Matt Salmon, Republican of Arizona, ‘‘It’s going to be a very vigorous fall.’’
Despite the House’s announcement, the Senate continued work Tuesday on its longer-term bill even as Republicans expressed resignation they would end up having to swallow the House’s short-term patch. It would be the 34th short-term transportation extension passed by Congress since 2009.
‘‘They may jam us on that, I wouldn’t be surprised,’’ said Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican. ‘‘I’d love to see a six-year highway bill; I think that’s good for everybody. But if it takes a three-month to get a six-year, I’ll take it.’’
Work on the Senate’s version of the bill has been slowed by intraparty GOP squabbles over issues including the Export-Import Bank, which the Senate voted Monday to add to the highway bill, over heated objections from conservatives. Supporters in the business community say the bank is necessary for US competitiveness, but conservatives say it amounts to corporate welfare.