July 23, 2015 / 12:43 AM / 4 years ago

Senate clears hurdle to open debate on transportation bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate plan to fund federal highway and rail transportation projects for three years advanced on a procedural vote on Wednesday, overcoming a roadblock to begin debate on the legislation.

Automobile traffic backs-up as it travels north from San Diego to Los Angeles along Interstate Highway 5 in California December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The 62-36 vote, coming a day after an initial attempt failed, followed hours of closed-door discussions as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell worked to bridge differences on both sides of the aisle that threatened to consign the ambitious effort to a short-term fix.

Forty-six Republicans and 16 Democrats combined forces to support the measure, which was opposed by 30 Democrats and six Republicans.

The legislation is expected to dominate Senate debate into next week but would represent the first multi-year U.S. surface transportation bill in a decade, if it succeeds.

Republicans and Democrats are working against a July 31 deadline to keep the national Highway Trust Fund from running out of money, and would have to complete their work quickly to send a measure on to the House of Representatives and ultimately the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature.

The transportation bill’s supporters applauded what they called “the first step” in moving the legislation forward.

“I urge my colleagues to start filing amendments and to join me on the floor for a robust debate about the future of our nation’s surface transportation system,” said Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Republican chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a key sponsor of the measure.

But the bill faces series of hurdles including opposition from Democrats and Republicans, some of whom say they would rather opt for a short-term extension and work to produce a more robust six-year funding package later in the year.

The Senate legislation also faces a hard sell in the House, where lawmakers produced an $8.1 billion plan to fund infrastructure projects, but only into December.

“This idea of a Senate bill coming together at the last minute - that’s not long term, that’s not paid for - brings real doubt for a lot of people,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said earlier on Wednesday.

The transportation bill also faces challenges from expected amendments to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and do away with parts of Obamacare and revive funding for the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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