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July 29, 2014 6:20 PM, EDT

Senate Passes Amended Highway Bill, Sends Back to House

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Senate on July 29 easily voted to send the House a nearly $8 billion bill that would fund federal highway programs through December, a move meant to force lawmakers to agree on a long-term funding plan for transportation construction projects nationwide.

Senators spent most of the afternoon debating the House-passed bill before adopting changes to it and eventually passing it by a vote of 79 to 18. The Senate’s action showed the chamber overwhelming supports crafting a multi-year highway bill in the fall or after the midterm elections that would ensure the federal Highway Trust Fund is financially stable.

The Senate adopted two amendments to the bill. The first largely replaced pension smoothing as the bill’s primary source of funding with tax compliance provisions. The second amendment changed the bill’s authorizing window from May 2015 to December of this year.

Several senators had raised objections over the bill’s reliance on pension smoothing, which allows companies to reduce required contributions to their retirement plans as a way of inflating their taxable income temporarily.

But the Senate bill is not expected to gain too much support in the Republican-led House. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters July 29 he would press to send the Senate the trust fund bill the House passed earlier this month by a vote of 367 to 55.

Congressional transportation leaders, meanwhile, say they remain confident the House and Senate will advance a short-term trust fund fix to the White House prior to the start of the August recess, when the trust fund is projected to run out of money.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said: “We outlined a clear bipartisan path forward and tonight the Senate stood behind the merits of our amendment. As I have said before, we won’t let the clock run out on transportation funding.”

Department of Transportation leaders have stressed that as early as Aug. 1 the agency would scale back payouts to states without a funding boost to the trust fund. States rely on federal dollars to finance large-scale construction projects that employ firms that are directly and indirectly associated with the trucking industry.

American Trucking Associations praised the Senate’s action shortly after Senators passed the bill.

“ATA believes quickly passing a long-term, well-funded highway bill is in our national interest and we believe that a short-term patch to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent is the best way to achieve that,” said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves. “We urge the House to follow suit and to pass the Senate’s Highway Trust Fund fix and then get on to the work of passing a long-term highway bill when Congress returns from recess.”