OUR OPINION: Congress sustains high drama on highway funds

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday afternoon on a bipartisan vote sent back to the House a bill that would provide a short-term fix paying for the Highway Trust Fund, the main source of money for the states to build and maintain highways including the interstate system.

The deal is worth about $11 billion and would sustain the trust fund through May 2015, but the vote to approve several amendments could mean the trust fund will become insolvent in a few days if the House does not agree to changes or if an agreement cannot be reached before the August recess begins Friday.

The Hill, a Washington newspaper, reported that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Tuesday that there is still time to deal with amendments to a nearly $11 billion bill to extend federal transportation funding.

U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Thad Cocran, both Mississippi Republicans, voted for the bill on final Senate passage.

Republican leaders in the House have insisted that the Senate accept their version of the transportation funding because the Department of Transportation has said it will have to begin cutting road payments to states on Friday if Congress doesn’t act.

The House GOP measure would extend road and transit funding until May 2015, and lawmakers in the House have argued since they approved their bill last week that an extension is the only viable way to prevent a transportation funding bankruptcy.

Wyden said Tuesday as he was offering an amendment that would shorten the deadline to Dec. 31, to allow for a possible long-term extension to be crafted after the November elections.

The high-stakes scenario was increased when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday if the Senate replaces the House revenue plan the House would strip out the new language and bounce the bill straight back to the Senate, Congressional Quarterly reported.

GOP leaders indicate they are confident that the Senate ultimately will accept their version of the transportation funding package because neither party is eager to be blamed for shutting down construction projects.

Senate aides insisted in published reports that even with the delay, they still expected the House bill would go to President Obama’s desk this week.

Those who make decisions on Capitol Hill don’t appear overly concerned, but for contractors, employees, state transportation officials and many highway users, the drama is in no way entertaining.