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Congress OKs stopgap bill to sustain highway projects

Lisa Mascaro
Chicago Tribune

Washington — With just a day to spare, Congress approved a stopgap measure to fund the federal highway program, sending President Barack 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 on Thursday. The House approved the legislation on a bipartisan vote a day earlier before leaving town for the August 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.

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.

Reaching a deal on transportation funding has proven 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.

The House and Senate, both controlled by Republicans, found bipartisan support from Democrats in efforts to fund highways but have taken different approaches to the problem.

Congress is heading out for a five-week summer recess in anything but a cheerful vacation mood, leaving behind a pile of unfinished business that all but guarantees a painful fall.

Not long after they return in September, lawmakers must vote on President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, a brutally divisive issue that many lawmakers expect will dominate voter town halls during their annual August break.

And, as more videos emerge showing disturbing fetal tissue collection practices, Republicans are increasingly focused on cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood, raising the prospect that Congress will spend September tied in knots over how to avoid shutting down the government over that issue.

Later in the fall or winter, Congress will have to raise the federal debt limit, another issue ripe for brinkmanship, especially given the presence in the Senate of several presidential candidates adamantly opposed to an increase.

Add in deadlines to renew authorities for the Federal Aviation Administration, child nutrition standards and pipeline safety, and it’s shaping up as a monster of a fall.

“If you take a look at all of the things on the list, it’ll be a lot of traffic going through one toll booth,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Thursday.

Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, who leads a group of 18 conservatives vowing to oppose any spending bill that funds Planned Parenthood, says, “This is one of those line-in-the-sand-type of issues.”

Associated Press contributed.