Lawmakers Move To Advance Measures to Replenish Highway Trust Fund

By Dow Jones Business News, 
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By Siobhan Hughes

WASHINGTON--Lawmakers Thursday moved to advance measures to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road, bridge and mass-transit projects, as the fund came within weeks of dropping to levels that would force the government to delay reimbursing states for repairs and other construction.

The House Ways and Means committee, in a voice vote, approved legislation that would transfer $10.8 billion to the fund by relying on tactics that are unrelated to highway spending. The bill would extend the funding through May 2015.

The Senate Finance Committee was expected to vote later Thursday on a bipartisan alternative that would rely on similar funding strategies but also seek to improve compliance with existing tax laws, including taking Medicare payments from doctors and other providers who are delinquent on their taxes and tightening up on compliance with mortgage-interest deduction rules. The committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) was still working on details of the bill including its duration.

Both chambers agree broadly on a collection of budget tactics involving pensions, customs fees, and transferring money from the leaking underground storage tank trust fund; Congress has taken these approaches in the past. They diverged on funding details, however, and it was unclear Thursday how they would reconcile the approaches.

House Republicans appeared unwilling to budge from their position that a trio of budget maneuvers would be the most reasonable way forward.

"The Senate appears to be heading down a road of legislation that provides higher taxes for more spending and that's not a path forward in the House," Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R., Mich.) said Thursday.

The temporary "patches" that will last less than a year in both bills reflected the parties' inability to come up with a longer-lasting method of paying for the federal share of transit projects. Highway reauthorizations are usually multiyear legislation; the last one was enacted in 2012.

The federal government covers a quarter of the nation's spending on roads and mass-transit projects, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, but because Congress hasn't increased taxes on gasoline and diesel since 1993, legislators have had to transfer $54 billion from the Treasury Department over the past six years to keep up with basic transit spending.

Mr. Camp promised to hold a hearing on long-term funding for the Highway Trust Fund before he retires at the end of this session. But committee Democrats urged him to do more, saying that Mr. Camp's plan to extend funding through May 2015 would delay the debate into a period when presidential-election fights would get under way.

Democrats instead tried to advance a measure to provide funding through the end of 2014, but were easily defeated by Republicans, who insist that Congress needs to provide funding through next year to give construction firms time for planning during the winter season.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighed in Thursday with a letter saying Congress needed to come up with a long-term fix by the end of the year. "In the Chamber's view, the longer the patch, the easier it will be for Congress to kick the can down the road and avoid the tough question: how will we maintain federal investment in highways, public transportation, and highway safety?" according to the letter signed by Bruce Josten, the group's top government-affairs official.

Write to Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com


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