U.S. Senate nears deal to vote on $10.9 billion transportation bill
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate leaders were nearing an agreement to vote this week on a $10.9 billion transportation funding extension already passed by the House of Representatives, signaling a desire to minimize drama over road construction money this summer.
Senior aides to Senate Democrats and Republicans said that under the plan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will offer up the Republican-authored House measure, which aims to restore enough money to the Highway Trust Fund to keep federal funds flowing to road, bridge and transit construction projects through the end of May 2015.
Without new money for the Highway Trust Fund, the Department of Transportation has said it will start to cut back federal funding for projects by nearly a third starting on Aug. 1, the same day Congress begins a five-week summer recess.
The House bill would raise revenues from pension accounting changes, higher customs fees and a transfer from an environmental cleanup fund.
A similar measure passed by the Senate Finance Committee uses the same funding mechanisms but adds some tax compliance revenue measures that a number of Republicans are likely to oppose.
Reid will also allow a vote on that measure as an amendment to the House bill, the Democratic aide said. He also will allow a vote on an amendment from Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer to limit the extension until the end of 2014, the aides added, noting that the plan could still be delayed by objections from any senator.
Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has argued in favor of a shorter extension that would force Congress to pass a longer-term transportation funding measure during the "lame duck" session that follows November congressional elections. She has said the House bill would delay action until next year, when a newly elected Congress takes office.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said on Monday the House plan was a temporary fix that sets up a new highway funding crisis next year. He has requested a $302 billion, six-year transportation funding measure.
"It is hard to imagine that Congress will not push the snooze button on this issue again until crunch time," Foxx said at a news conference.
But there is significant bipartisan support for the House measure, which would avoid any slowdown in highway projects and construction worker layoffs for about 10 months. President Barack Obama also voiced support for it during stops at highway construction sites last week around the United States.
The Highway Trust Fund, which has been supported by fuel tax revenues since its inception in 1956, has run chronically short of money in recent years because of higher construction costs and improved vehicle fuel economy.
Trucking firms and many other industry groups favor higher fuel tax rates, unchanged since 1993, to return it to solvency, a method also advocated by Boxer. But Republicans and the Obama administration have largely ruled that out this year.
(This story was refiled to correct typographical error in headline)
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)