Congress poised to wrap up transport, loans, flood bill

Reuters News
|
Posted: Jun 29, 2012 1:27 PM
Congress poised to wrap up transport, loans, flood bill

By Roberta Rampton and Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan bill to fund a massive job-creating transportation bill, retain low interest rates for millions of student loans, and maintain national flood insurance won approval on Friday in the U.S. House of Representatives.

On a vote of 373-52, the House sent the measure to the Senate for anticipated concurrence later in the day, which would clear the way for President Barack Obama to sign it into law.

Both Democrats and Republicans embraced the measure, largely because it would create or save about three million jobs, a key issue in the November 6 elections since voters' top concern is the struggling U.S. economy.

The bill came together this week as lawmakers calculated the election-year impact of continued gridlock on measures affecting jobs, soaring consumer debt, and help for people who need government underwriting for flood risk to buy a home.

"It has indeed been a very bumpy road to get to this point," said John Mica, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, who led negotiations on the bill.

"I'm not particularly pleased with some of the twists and tu-HOUSErns," he said on the House floor on Friday, describing the difficulties of reaching the deal in the gridlocked Congress.

After months of negotiations, the compromise was reached just days away from the deadline for an increase in student loan rates and for a lapse in transportation funding.

Ambitious proposals to shore up U.S. infrastructure gave way to a deal that basically keeps transportation funding at current levels.

The blueprint was based on a bipartisan proposal by the Democratic-led Senate and was supported by the Obama administration.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the transportation funding would help put Americans to work fixing crumbling U.S. infrastructure.

"There is still much more that Congress can do to put Americans back to work, and the President will continue to call on them" to do this, he said on Air Force One as Obama flew to Colorado.

The federal government spends more than $50 billion annually on road, bridge and transit construction projects. The last transportation bill expired in 2009 and construction programs have survived since through a series of short-term funding extensions. The current one ends on Saturday.

STUDENT LOANS, FLOOD INSURANCE

The package also prevents federal student loan interest rates from doubling to 6.8 percent on July 1 in a one-year, $6 billion deal.

The bill also extend funding for the National Flood Insurance Program to September 30, 2017. It had been set to expire at the end of July, in the middle of hurricane season.

The flood insurance program took on a massive debt load during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and has been kept alive through repeated short-term extensions as lawmakers struggle with reforms.

Federal law requires that homes in designated flood-risk areas have flood insurance before a mortgage can be completed. Because the NFIP is effectively the only flood insurance available in the United States, a lapse in the program would mean home sales could not close in designated flood areas.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and John Crawley; Editing by Fred Barbash)