The $8 billion bill will keep federal projects on track for the next three months, but the temporary fix creates a new crisis point in fall, as Congress has been unable to agree on a long-term solution.
WASHINGTON — Congress approved a stopgap measure Thursday to fund the federal highway program, sending President Obama the legislation to avert a Friday shutdown of transportation projects nationwide.
The $8 billion bill will keep federal projects on track for the next three months, but the temporary nature of the fix creates a new crisis point in fall, as Congress has been unable to agree on a long-term solution.
Obama was expected to quickly sign the measure into law after it cleared the Senate 91-4 Thursday. The votes against the bill came from Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Mike Lee of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, all Republicans. The House approved the legislation on a bipartisan vote a day earlier before leaving town for the five-week summer recess.
The bill also props up the Department of Veterans Affairs with an additional $3 billion to avoid closing health clinics amid its own budget shortfall.
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But the transportation compromise excluded a provision to resurrect the Export-Import Bank, the 81-year-old government-backed financial institution that has been unable to make new loans as some conservatives in Congress want to shut it down.
Earlier Thursday, the Senate voted 65-34 for an alternative highway bill that would pump $350 billion over six years into projects for the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. That measure will be shelved until October, and House members have expressed strong reservations about its funding provisions, which would cover only the first three years of spending.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, said the House would take up the long-term measure after the recess and the two chambers would then work out their differences.
In the fall, the Senate will be taking up several issues that are even more complicated and divisive, such as the debt ceiling and funding of the government itself. Some say lawmakers are eager to get the highway bill, a relatively easier compromise, out of the way.
Before the vote on the stopgap measure, some senators expressed dismay that they were approving another short-term solution — the 35th since 2009 — instead of passing a long-term highway-spending bill.
“None of these important policies will get done if Congress just kicks this can down the road,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
Reaching a deal on transportation funding has been difficult. The federal 18-cent-a-gallon gas tax has not been increased since 1993 and is failing to keep pace with construction costs, especially as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient and drivers are buying less gas.
Congress has until Oct. 29 to figure out a solution.
The future of the Export-Import Bank will continue to be part of the debate, as groups funded by the billionaire Koch brothers try to wind down the bank as a symbol of corporate welfare.
The bank is backed by business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as a vital resource for firms to stay competitive abroad. The bank provides financing for foreign firms buying U.S. goods — primarily airplanes from Boeing, but also other products from smaller firms.
While the bank provision had been attached to the Senate’s transportation bill, it was not included in the stopgap compromise measure now headed to Obama.