In response to the Senate July 29 replacing a House-passed Highway Trust Fund (HTF) stabilization bill with its own proposal to preserve federal highway and transit investment, the House of Representatives today voted 272 to 150 to essentially say “thanks, but no thanks.” As a result, the legislation approved by the House July 15 to infuse the HTF with $10.8 billion to preserve existing levels of highway and public transportation investment though May 31, 2015, now heads back to the Senate. The Senate proposal would have kept the trust fund and surface transportation programs operating until mid-December to try to encourage Congress to find a long-term HTF solution during the remainder of 2014.
The Senate HTF package was approved overwhelmingly earlier this week, but a technical error in the bill found after its passage left the measure $2 billion short of fully offsetting its transfers into the Highway Trust Fund. This shortfall complicated efforts by some House Democrats to push the House to take up the Senate bill. While the Senate corrected an $11 billion technical error in the House-passed HTF bill, House members claimed there was not enough time to fix the problem with the Senate measure. House Republican leaders had insisted throughout the week they would not accept any changes to their HTF proposal from the Senate and the problem with the Senate bill certainly helped their rhetorical defense of this position.
The difference between the House July 15 and July 31 votes on the identical legislation is worth noting. The HTF measure passed the House 367 to 55 on July 15 with support from 181 Republicans and 186 Democrats (45 Republicans and 10 Democrats opposed the bill). The bill passed today with votes from 227 Republicans and 45 Democrats (2 Republicans and 148 Democrats opposed the bill). The dynamic reflects frustration among Democrats over House Republican leaders not allowing the Senate measure to come up for a vote. As a result, GOP leaders apparently convinced 43 Republicans who voted against the bill July 15 to change their vote today.
With Congress about to begin a five week recess until September 8 and the U.S. Department of Transportation stating that it would have to begin slowing down reimbursements in August for federal-aid highway projects already underway to preserve a positive balance in the HTF, the Senate is expected to pass the House HTF measure later today or tomorrow.
The last month of machinations in both chambers over the fifth temporary HTF patch in seven years clearly proves that preserving highway and transit investment with short-term budget gimmicks is becoming increasingly difficult. ARTBA will continue to push members of both parties and chambers to devote the remaining five months of 2014 to developing a long-term trust fund solution.