Senate Passes 6-Year Highway Bill, Short-Term Patch Needed

WASHINGTON  (AP) -

The Senate passed a long-term transportation bill, but with House lawmakers already dispersed for their August recess, the bill will become just one more sticky issue on a jam-packed congressional agenda in the fall.

The $350 billion long-term bill was approved Thursday on a 65-34 vote with bipartisan support. It would make changes to highway, transit, railroad and auto safety programs, but its sponsors were only able to find enough money to pay for the first three years of the six-year bill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the bill’s passage “a win for our country.”

Immediately after the vote, the Senate turned to a three-month patch previously passed by the House that extends the government’s authority to process highway and transit aid payments to states through Oct. 29. Without congressional action, that authority will expire at midnight Friday. House Republican leaders opted for the patch to give themselves more time to work on a long-term — and long-sought — transportation bill.

Lawmakers have said they are loath to take up yet another short-term transportation funding extension — this would be the 34th extension since 2009. But Republicans and Democrats don’t want to see transportation aid cut off, and they are eager to pass an amendment to the extension bill that fills a $3.4 billion hole in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ budget. The money gap threatens to force the closure of hospitals and clinics nationwide.

The delay on House action on a long-term transportation bill adds one more messy fight to a fall agenda already crammed with difficult, must-pass legislation. Twelve annual spending bills face a Sept. 30 deadline but are being held up by a clash over the Confederate flag. Congress must also decide whether to approve or disapprove President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, and whether to pass a contentious defense policy bill that faces a veto threat from the White House. Another fight is certain over raising the nation’s borrowing authority.