By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress passed a stopgap three-month bill Thursday to keep federal highway and transit aid flowing and avoid a widespread shutdown of construction projects. The move pushes congressional action on a long-term overhaul of transportation programs deeper into an already fractious election year.
The House acted first, passing the extension by a mostly party-line vote of 266 to 158 after Republicans and Democrats traded verbal jabs over how best to prevent economic disruption.
The Senate followed just over three hours later, passing the measure by a voice vote over the objections of some Democrats who wanted to attach a long-term transportation plan to the extension and send it back to the House.
But the House, which planned to begin a two-week recess later Thursday, had given the Senate little choice — the government's authority to spend money on transportation programs and levy federal fuel taxes expires on Saturday, leaving no time for a tug-of-war between the two chambers.
The bill now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Without action, Democrats estimated that as many as 1.8 million construction-related jobs were at risk just as states are gearing up for the spring and summer construction season. The government would also have lost about $110 million a day in uncollected gas and diesel taxes.
The last long-term transportation law expired in 2009, but programs have been limping along under a series of short-term extensions. The latest bill is the ninth such extension.
Congress has been struggling since even before that to find the money to maintain the nation's aging roads, bridges and transit systems, as well accommodate future population growth. Two blue-ribbon federal commissions have predicted that without dramatic increases in transportation spending, the nation will face nightmarish congestion in coming decades.
The House vote capped an on-again, off-again struggle by House GOP leaders to pass their own five-year transportation plan. They were forced to abandon plans to bring the bill to the floor last month because of divisions in their own ranks. Opting instead for a short-term extension, they repeatedly canceled votes on first a three-month and then a two-month extension this week before deciding to put the three-month bill to a vote on Thursday.
Democrats chided Republicans for being unable to marshal votes to pass their own long-term plan while refusing to permit a vote on a $109 billon Senate plan supported by all the chamber's Democrats and about half of its Republicans.
"Give us that vote. What are you afraid of? You afraid it might pass?" Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, asked during House debate on the extension. "We have an alternative — pass the Senate bill."
House and Senate Democrats and the Obama administration have kept up a daily drumbeat over the past two weeks urging Republicans to pass the Senate bill.
"As soon as the House gets back to work, they should do their part and pass that bill in similarly bipartisan fashion," the White House said in a statement after the House vote.
But House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said Democrats weren't even able to get committee approval of a long-term transportation bill when they controlled the House prior to the 2010 election.
"We are here to pass a responsible extension so that people across America can go to work, so that we can finish a long-term extension bill," Mica said.
Last fall, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pitched a long-term transportation plan tied to increases in offshore oil drilling and other domestic energy production as the centerpiece of a GOP jobs agenda. But the bill has instead become one of Republicans' biggest legislative headaches.
The five-year bill crafted by Republicans was unacceptable to tea-party conservatives, who say it should be paid for entirely by user fees such as federal gas and diesel taxes, even though revenue from those taxes isn't enough to cover current transportation spending. Conservatives also would like to see the federal transportation role dramatically reduced, with states picking up those responsibilities. Moderate Republicans from suburban districts don't want transportation spending cut and have complained about the bill's treatment of transit programs.
Boehner has been unable to woo Democratic votes to make up for defections in his party. Democrats say the measure penalizes union workers, as well as undermining environmental and safety protections. If Boehner were to tweak the bill enough to pick up Democratic votes, he risks losing even more Republicans.
House Republicans face the same problem with the Senate bill. If brought to a vote, the Senate bill would likely pass the House — but with more Democratic than Republican votes, said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Transportation Center, a think tank.
That would undermine Boehner's support among House Republicans in an already difficult election year in which GOP control of the House may be in danger, he said.
Follow Joan Lowy at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.