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By David Lawder
WASHINGTON, July 15 The U.S. House of
Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a $10.9 billion
extension of U.S. transportation funding through May 2015, a
measure aimed at averting cutbacks in August in federal money
for road, bridge and transit projects.
The measure, paid for largely through revenue generated by
pension accounting changes and higher customs user fees, passed
on a 367-55 bipartisan vote, despite opposition from outside
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that "as soon as I
can get to it," the Senate would begin considering a similar,
$10.8 billion measure with some alternate funding provisions in
the coming days.
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.
"If Congress fails to act, thousands of transportation
projects across the country and hundreds of thousands of
construction jobs will be at risk," said House Transportation
and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a
Pennsylvania Republican. "This legislation provides much needed
certainty and stability for the 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.
But House Republicans have ruled that out, and the biggest
revenue source in the House-passed bill is often called "pension
smoothing," which allows companies to reduce near-term
contributions to employee pension programs by assuming a higher,
historical average rate of return. That move is expected to
boost corporate tax collections by the U.S. Treasury by about
$6.4 billion over 10 years.
WHITE HOUSE WELCOMES EXTENSION
The bill would transfer $1 billion in existing money to
construction projects from a fund that helps pay for cleanup of
leaking underground fuel storage tanks.
The $10.8 billion companion measure passed by the
Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee would also fully
fund transportation projects through May, although it would rely
less heavily on pension changes and more on revenues from
measures to boost tax compliance.
The White House said on Monday it would welcome the 10-month
extension, to the chagrin of some Democrats who say it would
push any decisions on long-term funding to a newly elected
Congress next year.
Among those is California Senator Barbara Boxer, who Reid
said would get a Senate vote on her plan for a shorter, $8
billion extension. Boxer has argued a shorter extension is
needed to force Congress to act on a long-term funding plan
during the "lame duck" legislative session after November
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Peter Cooney)