Senate's Highway Trust Fund Bill Sets Up Conflict With The House

A short-term fix for the nearly empty Highway Trust Fund is a step closer to President Obama's desk. Congress has been talking about the long-term problems with the construction account, but the two chambers have not agreed on a long-term solution.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The federal government says next month it will start slowing payments to states for work on roads and bridges, unless Congress can figure out a way to replenish the highway trust fund. The Senate did pass a bill yesterday to make the funds solvent through December. But it differs from a measure passed in the House two weeks ago, setting up a conflict between the two chambers. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Congress plans to leave Washington for its August recess by the end of the week and high on lawmakers' to-do list has been to agree on a highway bill. The highway trust fund is running on empty. House lawmakers have already approved a temporary fix to fund infrastructure construction until next spring. It uses a controversial method called pension smoothing. That allows corporations to put less money in their workers' pensions, meaning they would pay more taxes. But Democratic Senator Ron Wyden argued the House plan causes more problems than it solves.

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SENATOR RON WYDEN: If you go with the House approach it over uses pension smoothing, you're going to have two challenges, one to pay for transportation and second, what are you going to do about the hopes and aspirations of all those workers who are depending on their pensions?

NAYLOR: The measure Wyden backed would use less pension smoothing and expires in December meaning lawmakers would have to act sooner on a permanent fix to the trust fund. It was overwhelmingly adopted by senators on a bipartisan vote. Senators then approved a second bipartisan amendment to take out the pension smoothing provision altogether. It was cosponsored by Tennessee Republican Bob Corker.

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SENATOR BOB CORKER: I can't support another kicking the can down the road on one of the simplest issues we have to deal with in the United States Senate because elections are coming up.

NAYLOR: The Senate rejected other amendments including one that would all but phase out the highway trust fund and let states retain all revenue raised by the gas tax. The Senate changes however appear to be for naught. House Speaker John Boehner vowed earlier in the day the House would stick with its bill.

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JOHN BOEHNER: I just want to make clear, if the senate sends a highway bill over here with those provisions in it, we're going to strip it out and put the House passed provisions back in and sent it back to the Senate.

NAYLOR: That would put the ball back in the Senate's court and with the clock ticking towards recess and the trust fund running dry the most likely scenario is the Senate will be forced to accept the House approach. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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