Divided Congress Resorts to 3-month Highway Bill

By: - March 30, 2012 12:00 am

State transportation officials who worried they might have to delay road construction projects because of a lack of federal money can breathe a little easier, after Congress agreed to keep the money flowing for another three months.

Lawmakers sent President Obama the measure Thursday (March 29), but nearly everyone involved was disappointed. The Republican-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate could not agree on a compromise that would last longer, so they gave themselves another 90 days to make a deal. This is the ninth time since 2009 that Congress extended the deadline to find agreement.

“It is not enough for us to continue to patch together our nation’s infrastructure future with short-term band-aids,” said Obama spokesman Jay Carney. “States and cities need certainty to plan ahead and America’s construction workers deserve the peace of mind that they won’t have to worry about their jobs every few months.”

The brinksmanship had states scrambling for a worst-case scenario, in which the federal gas tax would have expired Sunday and highway money would stop flowing to the states. The Missouri Department of Transportation, for example, worried that it would have to cancel its annual contract bidding April 20, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

There is no guarantee that Congress will do any better in the next three months than it has over the last three years. A bipartisan coalition in the Senate backed a two-year surface transportation bill earlier this month, but it made no headway in the House. In fact, House Republicans have not been able to come up with a package that meets the demands of their own caucus.

The main sticking point in negotiations is over funding. The federal gas tax is no longer sufficient to pay for all of the projects Congress directed to be funded, but lawmakers are loathe to raise the gas tax. Generally, conservatives want to scale back federal spending to match the amount of money generated by the gas tax, while many liberals want to find the money from elsewhere in the budget or through borrowing.

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