June 29, 2012
Transportation bill gets congressional approval
Congress passed a transportation bill Friday worth over $100 billion, sending the bill to the president’s desk after months of brinksmanship.
The massive majorities by which the package passed — 373-52 in the House and 74-19 in the Senate – do not capture the weeks of wrangling ahead of the votes.
The bill was in doubt until the last minute, with current transportation policy set to expire. The bill also capped federal student loan interest rates, which were expected to jump on Sunday. And it extended federal flood insurance programs.
But the House was able to rush the legislation through after a Thursday night Rules Committee meeting.
Meanwhile, supporters in the Senate fended off dissenters who argued the bill violated Senate rules. There was a trio of procedural votes to get to final passage as outside groups like Heritage Action for America decried the rushed process.
“Any of the amendments were to kill the bill. And I couldn’t let that happen,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told POLITICO of overcoming objections from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who wanted the upper chamber to have more time to read the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had tried to push through the measure by unanimous consent Thursday to allow lawmakers to go home early for the recess week, but leadership decided to kick the vote until Friday to allow for a consent agreement and give the upper chamber time to review a score from the Congressional Budget Office.
Lawmakers from both parties and chambers say the bill is imperfect, but most agree it represents an improvement over current policy. House Republicans dropped insistence on including the Keystone XL pipeline and other environmental provisions as the Senate Democrats moved toward the House position on environmental streamlining and dropped funds for conservation.
Congress put some battles on the shelf to work out what many believe is this session’s big jobs bill, upsetting some green groups but heartening the construction industry and many state departments of transportation.
“Nobody likes the bill. But we’ve got to have a bill,” one GOP lawmaker told POLITICO. And Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who along with other House Democratic negotiators withheld signatures on the conference report over complaints of being frozen out of the information pipeline, said he and others “reluctantly” voted for the bill.
Before the vote, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) took to the House floor to applaud among other things a “streamlining process that is unprecedented.” He said conferees have “joined together to get the people’s work done." The committee’s ranking member Rahall was more subdued. “The bill is what it is,” he said with a shrug, adding that ultimately it means jobs.
White House press secretary Jay Carney called the legislation “a good bipartisan bill that will create jobs, strengthen our transportation system and grow our economy,” adding that President Obama “looks forward to signing it.” Obama devoted his most-recent weekly radio address to rally Congress to pass the infrastructure bill and student loan legislation.
The new transportation bill comes just in time — the gas tax was set to expire Sunday without congressional action. But getting here wasn’t easy. The last long-term transportation bill expired more than 1,000 days ago, necessitating nine separate extensions of the law that first took effect in 2005. The bill is the second big breakthrough in the sector this year: In February, Obama signed a four-year FAA bill after more than four years of extensions and one high-profile two-week shutdown in 2011.
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