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Congress to punt on federal highway spending with a two-month extension

(Source: Shutterstock)

The House and Senate are taking steps to quickly pass legislation next week that would extend federal highway funding for two months, just days before the so-called Federal Highway Trust Fund expires.

Democrats have been hounding Republicans for weeks to do something to extend federal highway funding before it expires at the end of May. Without an extension, Democrats have warned that construction around the country would be put at risk, since those projects benefit from federal funding.

(Source: Shutterstock) The House and Senate are getting ready to pass a two-month extension of federal highway funding, just days before the program expires. Image: Shutterstock

"In a matter of one week or two weeks, the authorization for highways will be gone," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday. "It is different than other authorizations we do because under the law we passed previously, when that law expires, there is no contract authority, and that program will come to a screeching halt."

But a comprehensive bill to extend funding for a longer time has been hard to come by, in part because of a split over whether and how to generate more funding. One obvious solution has been an increase in the gas tax, but many Republicans oppose this idea and it seems unlikely to move it ahead.

Last month, several Republicans joined Democrats in a proposal that would increase the gas tax. The gas tax has been frozen at about 18 cents per gallon for a few decades, and supporters of an increase say inflation, plus the development of fuel-sipping cars, means the tax doesn't generate enough revenue for the U.S. government.

In the Senate, Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) proposed a two month extension for highway funding. While they said they prefer a longer-term answer, they admitted that no other idea has presented itself.

"Time and again – six times over the past 10 years – Congress has kicked the can down the road and done a short-term patch, rather than made the hard but necessary choices to responsibly fund the Highway Trust Fund," said Carper. "This has left states and cities without the funding certainty that is required to plan and build any large transportation project."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged the bill on the Senate floor on Thursday, a sign it will come up next week.

In the House, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) proposed a two-month extension of their own.

While there was no description of their bill as of Friday afternoon, the House Rules Committee announced that it would meet Monday evening to approve a rule for debating and amending that bill. That's a sign the House could take it up and pass it as early as Tuesday.

Both the House and Senate will likely feel pressure to pass something next week, since they will both go out for the Memorial Day weekend and won't return until early June.

In the meantime, many conservatives oppose the highway program in its current form, and say states should be given more power over their own funding. Heritage Action, for example, says the federal government has squandered the money it has on items outside its original purpose, including ferries and bike paths.

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