Nearly as many House Republicans as Democrats voted on Tuesday to pass a bill to keep federal highway projects temporarily running into the next Congress, despite pressure from two influential outside conservative groups to oppose the measure.
Approved in an overwhelming 367 to 55 vote, the bill would provide $10.8 billion more for the federal Highway Trust Fund. That amount is projected to be enough to keep the fund solvent through May. Backers included 181 Republicans and 186 Democrats, while 45 Republicans and 10 Democrats opposed it.
The bill is likely to become law only because the Senate and the White House are out of other options. No one is particularly happy about it. It doesn't solve any long-term problems, and in less than a year it will put lawmakers right back where they have been.
"This is Exhibit A of congressional dysfunction," said Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, a Democrat who voted against the bill because he thought it was a farce. "We're passing short-term funding for what we all agree is a long-term problem."
For now, however, the legislation would avoid the steady reduction of federal funds that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has warned will begin on Aug. 1. By the end of the month, that reduction in federal funds would be about 28 percent. For some states, that would mean half of their money would be gone. For others, the reduction would be less serious. In total, federal funding makes up about one-fourth of all surface transportation spending.
The vote to approve the measure represented a setback for conservative groups Heritage Action and Club for Growth. They have lashed out at its use of pension-tax changes, and such things as money from a fund to repair underground fuel-storage tanks, as budget gimmicks—all designed, they say, to bail out what they view as a wasteful and inefficient program to begin with.
Both groups had warned lawmakers they would include this vote on their legislative scorecards. But this time, unlike some past votes on fiscal or funding issues, that did not seem to matter to as many Republicans. And watching from the across the Capitol, Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray praised the Republican-led House.
"It's encouraging to see Republicans in the House have chosen to push aside their tea party fringe and voted to at least prevent a shortfall that could derail or delay critical highway projects at the peak of construction season," Murray said in a statement. "Workers and businesses shouldn't have to pay the price for gridlock and dysfunction in DC, and I am hopeful that this takes us one more step away from a crisis."
But Heritage spokesman Dan Holler said, "No one really believes today's bill, which is chock full of gimmicks and revenue raisers, represents good policy." Instead, he said, "the specter of a crisis, no matter how overstated, occasionally causes solid conservatives to cast votes based on factors other than the underlying policy."
On the other hand, Holler asserted, appetite for real reform is gaining momentum. He pointed to legislation such as a bill introduced by Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., that would phase out the federal gasoline tax and turn over most of the federal transportation program to the states.