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Congress Kicks Highway Bill Down the Road for 90 Days

March 29, 2012 - 6:00pm

A weekend shutdown of federal highway programs was averted Thursday when the Senate signed off on a 90-day extension approved earlier by the House.

The extension, the ninth for the transportation bill, kicks the can down the road until June 30.

I would hope that during the Easter recess the House would be able to come back with something ... or accept our bill, which is our preference, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.

But in the heat of an election year, the prospect of either side giving in appears unlikely.

Republicans believe they can retake control of the Senate this fall, and are unwilling to buy into the Democrats' two-year, $109 billion highway bill that passed the Senate earlier this month.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Orlando, has offered a five-year, $260 billion highway package. But balking Democrats prevented it from garnering the two-thirds vote needed for passage.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., opposed the Senate plan, saying his chamber's bill "spends too much."

"Taxpayers have already spent $34.5 billion to bail out the trust fund in recent years, and I see nothing in this bill that will prevent this from happening again," Rubio said.

Ken Orski, an independent transportation analyst, accused the Senate's Democratic leaders of dishonest dealing and gimmickry.

"One of the most egregious examples was their use of the device of a 'manager's amendment' to insert into the bill shortly before the vote -- a provision transferring $5 billion in general funds without offering an immediate offset.

"The provision, buried in the 221-page amendment, was adopted -- probably unread by most senators -- by unanimous consent without debate. The text of the manager's amendment was not publicly revealed until it was posted online just a few hours before the final vote on the Senate bill," Orski said.

Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and a member of the House Transportation Committee, blamed Republicans for the impasse.

"Republicans' refusal to work with Democrats in crafting a Transportation Reauthorization bill has cost us the opportunity to deliver much-needed relief to the states and to the traveling public.

"The Transportation Reauthorization bill that was shoved down our throats in committee follows the Republican mantra of abolishing protective regulations, and turning everything over to the private sector so that they can turn a profit at the expense of the traveling and working public."

One of several sticking points is the House version's reliance on additional oil-drilling receipts to pay for highway projects. Many Democrats flatly reject that option.

James Corless, director of Transportation for America, an advocacy group, said, While we are disappointed that Congress was unable to pass a transportation bill before the end of the current extension, the action taken [Thursday] will at least prevent a disruption of the federal transportation program and ensure millions of Americans continue to work by building and repairing our roads, bridges, and transit systems."

Corless's group favors the Senate bill and urged House leaders to support it.

But another House Transportation panelist, Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Tallahassee, said the Republican approach would reform current programs, empower states and save money.

"Representative Southerland supports a long-term surface transportation bill that gives states the flexibility they need to administer their transportation dollars most effectively," said spokesman Matt McCullough.

House Transportation Committee analyst Justin Harclerode said the House plan is better for Florida because it ensures that the state gets more back on the money it sends to Washington.

"House Resolution 7 improves the rate of return for 'donor states' like Florida from the current 92 percent to 94 percent. The Senate bill does not," Harclerode said.

Contact Kenric Ward at or at (772) 801-5341.

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