The U.S. Senate today overwhelmingly approved 79 to 18 legislation to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund and head off a looming slowdown of reimbursements for already underway federal-aid highway projects.  Today’s action, however, ensures that the last two weeks of jockeying between the House and Senate over the specifics of the fifth short-term trust fund patch since 2008 will last at least a few more days.

The Senate began its debate by taking up the trust fund measure approved July 15 by the House of Representatives.  Senators voted 71 to 26 to replace the House revenue provisions with the trust fund plan authored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Committee Ranking Republican Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).  Both the House bill and the Finance Committee proposal would generate $10.8 billion in additional resources for the Highway Trust Fund—an amount sufficient to maintain current levels of highway and public transportation investment through May 2015.

The Senate then approved 66 to 31 an amendment from Senators Tom Carper (D-Del.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to reduce the amount of resources generated under the Finance Committee plan by $2.8 billion to $8 billion—an amount that would continue current trust fund operations through the end of 2014.  The Carper-Corker-Boxer Amendment also reduced the House highway/transit program extension from May 31 to December 19.  Senators Carper, Corker and Boxer took turns emphasizing the need to establish a long-term Highway Trust Fund solution later this year and that their proposal was essential to ending the cycle of short-term extensions and trust fund patches that have plagued the federal surface transportation programs for the past seven years.

It is clear a number of senators that supported both the Wyden-Hatch Amendment and the Carper-Corker-Boxer Amendment did so out of opposition to the use of “pension-smoothing” as a means to offset general fund transfers into the Highway Trust Fund.  “Pension smoothing” allows companies to temporarily reduce their contributions to pension plans.  Senators from both parties have decried the practice as a budget gimmick.  The Wyden-Hatch alternative relies less on “pension smoothing” than the House bill, and the Carper-Corker-Boxer Amendment struck the entire $2.8 billion in “pension smoothing” that was contained in the Wyden-Hatch plan.

Senators also rejected 69 to 28 an amendment from Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) to reduce the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents per gallon and the diesel tax from 24.4 cents per gallon to 5 cents per gallon.  The Senate defeated an identical amendment 67 to 30 during the 2012 consideration of the MAP-21 surface transportation reauthorization bill.

ARTBA joined with 12 other national construction association and labor unions in a letter to the full Senate today urging support for the Wyden-Hatch and Carper-Corker-Boxer Amendments and opposition to the Lee Amendment.

As the House and Senate have approved different trust fund measures, the two chambers must now work to reconcile their respective measures before the five-week congressional recess that is scheduled to start August 1.  While at this stage both sides are insisting they will not accept changes from the other body, it is unlikely either is willing to sacrifice the August recess or be perceived as shutting down the federal highway program.

ARTBA President & CEO Pete Ruane released the following statement after this evening’s Senate passage of the Highway Trust Fund measure:

“We appreciate the Senate action today and urge the House and Senate negotiators to now take advantage of the opportunity to craft legislation that continues funding to the states and focuses the attention of Congress on resolving this year the underlying revenue problem that is impeding the mobility and safe transportation that American citizens and businesses deserve.”