With deadlines looming, the Senate and House agreed to combine transportation reauthorization, student loans, and flood insurance into one comprehensive bill, according to The Hill:
Congress on Friday approved legislation that will extend federal highway programs through 2014, a low interest rate on student loans for one year, and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) for five years.
Leaders in the House and Senate negotiated the giant package, leaving no doubt that it would have enough support to pass. The bill will likely be the last major piece of legislation approved by Congress until after the November elections.
The House voted 373-52 in favor of the bill, which was supported by every voting Democrat, while 52 Republicans opposed it. In the Senate, the tally was 74-19, with 23 Republicans joining every Democrat in voting for the measure. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) voted present, while Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) missed the vote.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama looks forward to signing the bill.
Congress faced a weekend deadline for extending the highway and student loan provisions. The rates for federally backed student loans were set to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, and transportation funding was due to expire.
The transportation bill was the most contested part of the package. Prominent conservative groups urged Republicans to vote against it, while the U.S. Chamber of Congress pushed for passage.
While members were not happy with every provision in the bill, they largely praised it during floor debate in both chambers.
Democrats, in particular, hailed the extension of the highway provisions for two years, which they said would boost job creation.
“This conference agreement ... means jobs, and it means that we will not have further layoffs,” said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.). “It means that we will continue to improve our economy, and when all is said and done, I would choose to vote for American jobs any day.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who led negotiations on the transportation measure as chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the bill’s passage “sends a good message to the public” about how productive Congress can be.
But Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who sponsored a point of order objecting to the package under the Budget Control Act, said a vote for the bill was a vote for excessive government spending.
“I just want to say ... it continues to be unbelievable to me that this body does not have the courage, does not have the will, does not have the discipline to even live within a very modest budget that was laid out last August,” Corker said. “So I would say, all those who vote for this today are basically saying we do not have the discipline to live within our means.”
The final bill does not include language that would require approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. House Republicans had pushed for a provision on Keystone, but dropped the demand after winning a concession from Democrats to streamline permitting of transportation projects.
Republicans weren’t the only ones who had to make compromises, however, according to an earlier story from The Hill:
House Democrats [were] expected to vote for the package in large numbers despite complaints they were shut out of the final bicameral negotiations and language allowing states to opt out of spending money on bike and pedestrian safety projects.
“Given the fact that we now have hard info, this looks like a good, solid bill that will put people back to work,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a member of the conference committee.
He said the provisions on bike and pedestrian improvements would not affect Oregon.
“Some unenlightened states like Texas will [opt out], but states like mine will continue to invest,” he said.
Many officials from both parties were pleased to avoid yet another delay in long-term transportation funding, according to The Hill:
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, seemed relived to be finally approving a long-term highway bill after several short-term extensions.
“It is good to be at this point in the completion of a long-overdue transportation reform bill. A lot of people said it couldn’t be done,” Mica said.
“Tomorrow would actually close down thousands of transportation projects around the country,” he added. “Transportation departments around the country were on the verge of sort of handing out IOUs or shutting down. Probably millions would have been put out of work if we hadn’t acted.”
The highway portion of the bill authorizes spending of about $120 billion through 2014, and funds most of that by extending various fuel and highway taxes. But because those taxes don’t fully cover planned spending, the bill raises new revenues from companies by making changes to the way corporate pensions are calculated, and by increasing premiums paid to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
The vote also ends a long streak without a long-term highway bill. The last transportation bill that was approved by Congress was supposed to expire in September 2009, when former Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) ran the Transportation Committee in the House. Instead, the measure was temporarily extended nine times, including the latest three-month appropriation that was scheduled to expire on Saturday.