* Temporary funding bill goes to president for signature
* Senate accepts stopgap bill after House shuns longer one
By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON, March 29 The U.S. Congress averted a
weekend shutdown of thousands of transportation construction
projects on Thursday by passing a stopgap funding bill that buys
time for House Speaker John Boehner to resolve Republican
differences over long-term financing.
The Senate approved by voice vote a measure passed earlier
in the day by the House of Representatives that gives a 90-day
funding extension for road, bridge and rail construction
projects. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama, who is
expected to sign it.
The temporary measure averts layoffs for as many as 1.5
million construction workers who would have faced work stoppages
at midnight Saturday. But it did little to resolve an impasse
over long-term funding that is expected to be difficult to
resolve in a heated election year.
The Senate, led by Democrats, accepted the temporary measure
after the Republican-led House refused to take up a $109 billion
two-year bill passed by the Senate with strong bipartisan
support. "There is virtually no desire to force a huge fight
over that right now," said a Democratic leadership aide.
The delay, however, will put the debate over transportation
funding squarely in the path of Nov. 6 presidential and
congressional election campaigns.
The battle over transport funding underscores deep divisions
in the House over spending measures and the scope of the federal
Boehner has failed to gain support for his five-year, $260
billion transport funding bill, casting doubt over legislation
that has passed in past years with far less political drama.
"It's never been routine, but it's never really been quite
this messy," James Burnley, who served as Transportation
Secretary under President Ronald Reagan, said of transportation
Neither party has found it politically attractive to address
long-term financing problems for the Highway Trust Fund, which
is short of money because revenues from federal gasoline taxes
are no longer sufficient to fund it, Burnley said.
JOBS PLAN RETOOLED
Boehner once called the House transportation bill his
signature jobs plan because of the many jobs it would protect or
create. But to satisfy fiscal conservatives in his party,
Boehner will likely have to scale back the measure.
At the same time, he will have to address concerns of
Republicans from urban areas who objected to efforts to end
dedicated funding for mass transit projects.
Boehner has battled for more than a year to control his
unruly caucus, in which members backed by the Tea Party movement
have refused to support spending legislation. He has needed some
Democratic support to push measures through.
But in the House version of the bill, Democrats objected to
provisions to expand offshore oil drilling and force approval of
the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.
In the past, transportation bills have been bipartisan and
largely non-controversial because members could direct billions
in spending to projects in their home districts, taking credit
for boosting local economies and creating jobs. Huge U.S. budget
deficits and a ban on steering federal money to individual
projects through earmarks changed all of that.
The measure passed on Thursday was the ninth temporary
transportation bill passed by Congress since a 2005
authorization expired in 2009.
Jeffrey Shoaf of the Associated General Contractors of
America, an industry trade group, expressed concern that
lawmakers would be unable to reach agreement on a long-term
funding extension in an election year.
"The big fear is that politics will get in the way and
congress won't do it," Shoaf said.