The House yesterday approved an $8 billion patch for the anemic Highway Trust Fund, while a Senate committee postponed this week's vote on a stimulus package that would inject billions more into transportation infrastructure.
The postponement comes as the Office of Management and Budget is expected to announce on Monday in its mid-session budget review a trust fund shortfall of $5 billion to $6 billion, double the amount previously projected, according to Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. who is ranking minority member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"Over the past two years, Highway Trust Fund revenue estimates have continually worsened," Mica said in a statement yesterday. He added that the shortfall "could trigger a $14 billion cut in highway funding and every state across the country will be forced to start closing down transportation projects. This cut also means that 380,000 jobs could be lost."
The House voted yesterday 387 to 37 to transfer $8 billion into the Highway Trust Fund from the general fund after Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., introduced the trust fund fix on July 17 as a stand-alone bill to protect the fund from insolvency.
Rangel's bill still faces a presidential veto threat, after White House officials yesterday called it "a gimmick and a dangerous precedent that shifts costs from users to taxpayers at large."
Lobbyists and legislators warn the shortfall could slow or stop highway and bridge projects unless the gap is remedied. Governors and lobbyists also say the gap would force states to make transportation cuts up to quadruple the amount that officials have projected for the federal shortfall.
"For those who talk about a stimulus package, there is no better stimulus package" than financing highway infrastructure projects, Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said during House floor debate yesterday.
Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., countered by calling the $8 billion transfer a "slippery slope" and "a Band-Aid on the problem."
Lawmakers have struggled for more than a year to find a legislative fix, including a failed attempt last month in the House to attach the $8 billion transfer to a short-term Federal Aviation Administration extension.
Those who favor shoring up the highway trust fund with general funds argue the move would simply reverse an $8 billion transfer from the trust fund into the government's general fund that was made 10 years ago.
Senate Appropriations Committee members two weeks ago unanimously approved their own version of the trust fund transfer.
The Senate committee's fiscal 2009 spending bill for housing and transportation included a provision to shift $8 billion into the highway trust fund from the general fund, plus full funding for the federal highway program.
The Senate Appropriations Committee also was poised this week to vote on a supplemental appropriations bill and second economic stimulus package that was said to offer more than $5 billion and as much as $8 billion or $9 billion in highway funds.
But the committee's chairman Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., postponed the vote planned for today.
He attributed the delay to "uncertainty in how the oil and gas drilling issue is currently playing out on the Senate floor."
"With the Senate floor schedule between now and the August recess consumed with debate on legislation relating to housing, energy, defense authorization and tax extenders, there is no opportunity to begin consideration of a supplemental appropriations bill during the next 10 days," he said.
Byrd added that Democratic leadership "is committed" to bringing up the supplemental bill after the Senate returns from its August recess.