Short-term highway deal punts another fight until fall

AP News
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Posted: Jul 28, 2015 4:30 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — House and Senate Republicans acknowledged Tuesday a long-term highway deal is out of reach for now, and embraced a three-month extension that will punt yet another messy fight into the fall.

"This three-month extension represents the compromise that allows the House more time," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as House leaders retreated on plans for a five-month bill they hoped the Senate would go along with.

Across the Capitol, Senate Republicans similarly backed off hopes that the House would embrace their bill, a six-year rewrite with funding for three of those years, even as they continued trying to move it toward final passage. Instead they held out hope that passing the three-month bill could allow the chambers to come together on a long-term deal in the fall.

It will "hopefully be the last short-term extension in a long time," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

The House hopes to pass the legislation on Wednesday, in time to forestall a Friday cutoff of transportation funding to states, and then leave on an annual five-week summer recess. The Senate would follow suit in coming days.

It would be the 34th short-term transportation extension passed by Congress since 2009. The bill would extend government authority for transportation programs through Oct. 29 while replenishing the federal Highway Trust Fund, which is on the verge of dropping below the $4 billion cushion required to keep highway and transit aid payments flowing. It also includes $3.4 billion to fill a budget hole that the Department of Veterans Affairs claims would force it to close hospitals and clinics nationwide.

At the same time the extension sets up another potential standoff over transportation for the fall, a timeframe that already has all the makings for a major showdown between congressional Republicans and the White House over government spending levels and other issues, with a government shutdown threatening if a resolution is not reached.

"It's going to be a very vigorous fall," said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.

Among pending issues:

—Congress has a Sept. 30 deadline to pass the 12 annual spending bills to fund the government, a process that has stalled partly because of an unresolved dispute over the Confederate Flag in the House. House Speaker John Boehner has already acknowledged a short-term extension of current funding levels will probably be needed — which would serve only to postpone that fight until the end of the year, when it could coincide with a separate fight over raising the federal debt ceiling.

—Also in September Congress must vote on a contentious resolution to approve or disapprove of President Barack Obama's Iran deal.

—A fight over the federal Export-Import Bank, a conservative rallying cry, is also getting kicked into the fall because it's attached to the Senate's highway bill, which has been slowed to a crawl partly as a result. Conservatives call the bank that helps U.S. exporters corporate welfare, and want to see it stay dead after its charter expired June 30. Democrats and some business-friendly Republicans are pushing to revive it.

—A contentious defense policy bill faces a veto threat from the White House amid an unresolved dispute over defense spending levels, which Republicans want to raise without a commensurate increase in domestic spending sought by Democrats.

—And if all that weren't enough to keep lawmakers busy, Pope Francis is visiting to make a first-ever papal address to Congress Sept. 24.

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Associated Press writer Joan Lowy contributed to this report.