The House’s passage on Wednesday of a 90-day extension to highway funding will allow members to begin conferencing with the Senate, giving Congress a shot at passing a final surface transportation bill by the end of the year.
The House also approved a provision that would expedite highway projects by removing some environmental regulation and bureacracy, and another provision that would require all Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund revenue to be spent on maritime projects. The three-month extension, the 10th for the surface transportation bill, will run through June.
The passage of the extension by a 293-127 vote came after Congress approved a previous 90-day extension in late March, following the House’s inability to gain enough support for its five-year, $260 billion plan. Still, the chances Congress will be able to bang out a final surface transportation bill by the end of 2012 are unlikely. The inclusion of language to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline will only fan the flames of growing partisan rhetoric ahead of the presidential election.
Citing political clashes, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told attendees of a Wednesday morning transportation event that Congress wouldn’t be able to pass a multi-year bill by the end of the year. LaHood earlier this year called the House’s five-year plan the worst transportation bill he’d ever seen.
Sixty-nine Democrats voted for the extension despite language calling for approval of the oil sands pipeline from Alberta, Edmonton, into the United States. The White House on Tuesday threatened to veto the House extension if it included language to approve the pipeline, although it likely wouldn't get to that point because the Democratic-controlled Senate almost certainly would block the pipeline provision.
The House also approved a bill known as the RAMP Act (Realizing America’s Maritime Proposal) that would require all HMTF revenue be used for dredging harbors and channels, instead of being used to plug other budget gaps. The Senate’s two-year, $109 billion passed bill includes language recommending a similar action. The government currently collects some $1.4 billion annually, but spends less than $1 billion on dredging. The trust fund has a surplus of more than $6 billion.
“The fact that the House voted to take a step forward on a surface transportation bill is encouraging — as long as they follow through and immediately appoint conferees so that Congress can complete its work and get a bill to the president’s desk,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee.
She said the final surface transportation bill must be “truly bipartisan so it can pass both houses of Congress,” and the economic recovery depends on such an accord.