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Obama Backs GOP's Highway Bill, May Doom Unemployment Extension

Obama backed the highway patch sponsored by Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., in what may be the last nail in the coffin for an unemployment extension. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

President Barack Obama is backing the House GOP's proposed Highway Trust Fund patch, even though it could postpone a long-term bill until the next Congress and may doom any remaining chance for an unemployment extension.  

"With surface transportation funding running out and hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk later this summer, the Administration supports House passage of H.R. 5021," the Office of Management and Budget said in a Statement of Administration Policy. "This legislation would provide for continuity of funding for the Highway Trust Fund during the height of the summer construction season and keep Americans at work repairing the Nation's crumbling roads, bridges, and transit systems."  

The roughly $10 billion highway patch is paid for with extension of customs fees and with so-called pension smoothing — which delays payments made by corporations to their pension funds, temporarily boosting their profits and taxes paid to the government.  

The Senate had used those same offsets to pay for its five-month, retroactive unemployment extension. Extended unemployment benefits expired in December, and the House has declined to act, with Republicans suggesting that cutting people off of benefits — more than 3 million to date — has helped lower the unemployment rate. With the White House endorsing the use of those offsets for a highway patch, an unemployment extension appears even more dead.  

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told CQ Roll Call last week he would try to add an unemployment extension to the emergency border supplemental , and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he should have a chance to do so .  

But he'll likely have to find new offsets, pronto, for even that long-shot idea to get traction.  

The White House statement called on Congress again to pass a long-term bill to provide certainty well before the expiration of the patch.  

"The President has been very clear that increasing investment in the Nation’s infrastructure is a top priority. That is why the President laid out a vision for a 21st century surface transportation infrastructure, the GROW AMERICA Act, which would streamline project approval processes and implement innovative transportation policies that will make better use of taxpayer dollars while supporting millions of jobs and positioning the Nation's economy for lasting growth. That proposal is fully paid for through existing revenues and by reforming business taxes to help create jobs and spur investment while eliminating loopholes that reward companies for moving profits overseas," the administration said.  

It made no mention of unemployment insurance benefits. Obama has yet to hold any Republican priorities hostage to an unemployment extension, although he has repeatedly criticized House Republicans, including last week in Texas, for refusing to pass one.