Washington Digest: House passes short-term fix for highway fund

WASHINGTON — The House voted last week for a two-month extension in federal highway funding, averting an interruption of state projects while buying more time to come up with a better solution to federal road woes.

Lawmakers voted 387-35 to extend the Highway Trust Fund. Authorization of the fund was set to expire at the end of the month. The Senate added its approval early Saturday in a unanimous voice vote before leaving on a weeklong vacation.

The White House said President Barack Obama would sign the short-term fix if work continues toward a long-term bill.

The temporary fix would keep road and mass transit funding flowing through the end of July.

But it also under­scored the failure of Congress to find a compromise to keep the federal spigot open to the states for longer periods.

Republicans said $11 billion would be needed to fund the highway program through the end of the year. Experts say between $85 billion and $100 billion would be needed for a five- or six-year federal road program.

Reps. Joe Heck and Cresent Hardy, both R-Nev., and Dina Titus, D-Nev., voted for the bill. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., voted “present.”

TRADE BILL PASSES SENATE

Before recessing for Memorial Day, the Senate passed a bill giving Obama the authority he seeks to complete a major trade agreement with Pacific nations. The House still needs to act.

The Trade Promotion Authority bill would allow Obama to “fast track” the trade deal through Congress, giving lawmakers an up or down vote but not the ability to consider amendments.

Republicans who see trade as a boost to the economy generally supported the fast-track bill in an unusual alliance with Obama. A number of Democrats fought hard against the bill to extract concessions for U.S. workers who could lose their jobs to overseas competitors.

The bill passed 62-37. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted for it. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted against it.

SCIENCE POLICY FIGHT

The House voted 217-205 for a bill that sets guidelines and funding levels for the government’s major science agencies. The close vote reflected a policy battle among the parties and the science community.

Once a bipartisan endeavor, the latest version of the America Competes Act split the House.

Republicans touted its priorities as being in the national interest; Democrats charged it plays politics with science.

Science Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called the measure “a pro-science, fiscally responsible bill that sets America on a path to remain the world’s leader in innovation.” It prioritized biology, computer science, math and physical sciences while placing limits on other fields including climate science and green energy.

But Democrats called it the “America Can’t Compete Act” and charged it ignored a National Academies of Science board that recommended spending be increased to revitalize science and technology education and to spur breakthroughs such as the Internet.

“This majority is abandoning our future,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas.

Amodei, Hardy and Heck voted for the bill. Titus voted against it.

TAX CREDIT EXTENDED

Lawmakers voted 274-145 to permanently extend a tax credit for business research and development.

The tax break has been renewed repeatedly for one-year periods, which Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said “does not do very well in giving businesses the time to plan and the ability to consider long-term investments.”

Opponents complained the $181 billion cost of making the research credit permanent was not offset by budget cuts or new revenue elsewhere in the government, meaning it will deepen the deficit.

And rather than take up tax breaks individually, critics argued Congress should tackle a comprehensive rewrite of the tax code.

“There is no debate on the issue of the merits of the credit,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif. “However, what we do object to is the approach by which this is being done. … It is unpaid for, and it is outside of tax reform.”

Amodei, Hardy, Heck and Titus voted for the bill.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@reviewjournal.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC

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