House Sends Three-Month Highway Bill to Senate

Posted July 29, 2015 at 4:48pm

The House Wednesday sent a three-month extension of highway and transit programs to the Senate by a 385-34 vote, just days before current authorization expires.

The measure (HR 3236) keeps programs running through Oct. 29 and transfers roughly $8 billion to the cash-strapped Highway Trust Fund that reimburses states for projects. House members plan to depart town Wednesday, leaving the Senate to pass the measure.  

The bill also contains veterans-related tax provisions and a $3.3 billion transfer from the VA Choice Fund to be used for non-VA health care and to purchase hepatitis C drugs through Oct. 1, according to a CBO report. The VA faces a $2.5 billion shortfall beginning in late August. The department has warned the shortfall will result in a shutdown of hospital services, delaying referrals for care and furloughing employees.

The House’s three-month extension surfaced as the Senate was rallying behind a six-year bill fiercely opposed by House leaders. Senate Republican leaders hoped they could volley a six-year bill over to the House before lawmakers headed home, but procedural moves slowed the legislation down.

The House had already passed an extension (HR 3038) to Dec. 18, but Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., introduced the shorter extension late Monday with the backing of Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. The move was widely seen as a compromise to get Senators to back a short-term plan.

Congress is in a time crunch. Without action before the current authorization expires at the end of July, federally funded summer road work could grind to a halt across the country and thousands of Department of Transportation employees could be furloughed.

House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said the House needs time to review the Senate’s 1,000-plus page multi-year bill. “The right thing to do would be to measure three times and saw once,” he said. “On the Republican side, we read bills before we pass them.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said earlier this week that the House might bite on the bipartisan Senate bill (HR 22), but conceded Tuesday that the chamber would take up the House’s version after procedural moves slowed passage of the Senate measure. “We’ll see when we get it and see how quickly we can take it up,” he said.

McConnell said the two chambers will work in conference on a bipartisan multi-year bill when members return to work in September, a plan House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staff confirmed to CQ.

While the short-term extension passed by the House Wednesday authorizes programs through October, the legislative text leaves room for another short-term extension to December that wouldn’t require members to come up with additional money. That’s because the bill provides a financial cushion to carry the Highway Trust Fund through the end of the year. The $8 billion transfer would keep the trust fund solvent to year’s end, according to a committee fact sheet. The transfer from the General Fund and the corresponding offsets in the three-month bill were identical to those in the five-month bill.

Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said on the floor Wednesday of the three-month measure: “I hope that will satisfy Sen. McConnell that he can then pass it.”


Export-Import Bank’s Grip Loosens

Members of the Senate are seeking to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank by attaching it to a multi-year highway bill. But the hope that renewal of the Ex-Im Bank could be attached to the short-term extension looked dim after House Rules on Tuesday rejected an amendment to do so.

Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., had bipartisan backing to reauthorize Ex-Im in an amendment to the highway measure, but the committee voted 6-7 to reject a motion to make it in order despite Republicans Dan Newhouse of Washington and Steve Stivers of Ohio joining the four Democrats in supporting the motion.

House Democrats made another pitch during the floor debate Wednesday.  Hoyer called for members to reject the rule barring amendments. “We ought to do what the Speaker of the House said we ought to do: treat one another with respect and let the House work its will. There are 240 plus maybe 250 maybe 260 maybe 270 votes — you only need 218 — to pass the Export-Import Bank on this floor.”

Members ultimately voted in favor of considering the highway bill extension without amendments by a 243-183 vote. The Ex-Im Bank still has a chance of riding on a long-term measure. The Senate is expected to vote on a long-term highway measure that includes renewing the Ex-Im Bank charter that expired at the end of June.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said that if the Senate goes to conference with the House on a multi-year bill, the House will largely determine whether the bank’s charter is reauthorized.

Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.