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POLITICS: PennAve

Congress has just weeks to replenish expiring highway fund

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Politics,White House,Congress,Susan Ferrechio,Barack Obama,PennAve,Ron Wyden,Dave Camp,Budgets and Deficits,Orrin Hatch,Infrastructure,Interstate Highways

Roadwork nationwide could screech to a halt if Congress doesn't act soon.

Congress returns this week to confront the looming expiration of federal funds for highway projects, but there isn’t much time to pass legislation. That has left states worried they’ll no longer receive federal funding that pays for most state bridge and road repairs.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sent a letter last week to state transportation officials, warning them funding will be reduced in August until Congress acts to replenish the Highway Trust Fund.

“Our transportation is too essential to suffer continued neglect,” Foxx wrote to the states. “And I hope Congress will avert this crisis before it is too late.”

But neither the House nor Senate has scheduled time this week to debate legislation to fund highway projects, even though just a handful of workdays remain before lawmakers depart for the August recess.

The House this week is slated to debate an energy and water appropriations bill and a workforce training measure, while the Senate may consider a “Sportsmen's Act,” which, among other things, would allow states to electronically grant stamps for duck hunting.

Congressional staff, meanwhile, have been working on finding an emergency highway funding fix that Republicans and Democrats can agree on that would pay for bridge and road repairs until the end of the year.

As is often the case with spending bills, the two sides cannot agree on how to pay for the measure. In the House, a GOP proposal to pay for a temporary extension by reducing Saturday mail delivery quickly flopped with both parties. And Republicans have no plans to consider a Democratic plan to raise nearly $20 billion for the highway trust fund by curbing tax breaks for U.S. companies that take their business outside of the United States.

In the Senate, Republicans balked at a Democratic plan, authored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to fund the highways until year-end by raising taxes and fees and making no cuts in spending.

Senators left town without even voting on Wyden’s plan in committee.

Wyden has since revised the proposal from a cost of $9 billion to $7.6 billion by dropping some of the tax increases, but Republicans want cuts, leaving the matter unresolved.

A three-way negotiations is now underway, involving Wyden, Financial Services ranking member Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., aides tell the Washington Examiner.

The trio is aiming for legislation to fund highway projects until early next year.

“In our negotiations on the staff level, we’ve been meeting and talking daily to try to come up with a bipartisan package that can quickly pass both chambers,” Hatch spokesman Aaron Fobes told the Examiner.

Even if Congress comes up with a short-term plan, lawmakers will have to begin crafting a long-term highway funding plan early next year that deals with an annual $14 billion gap in funds.

President Obama, who isn't in favor of raising the 18.4-cent federal gasoline tax that pays for most of the highway trust fund, has proposed a $302 billion, four-year plan funded in part by closing corporate tax loopholes, a non-starter with Republicans.

Obama appeared in front of the Key Bridge in Washington, D.C., last week to warn if Congress does not replenish highway funding by August, nearly 700,000 jobs related to federally funded road work would be in jeopardy.

“That would be like Congress threatening to lay off the entire population of Denver, or Seattle, or Boston,” Obama said.

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