The Senate on Tuesday voted against limiting debate on dozens of amendments lawmakers want to add to a bipartisan transportation bill, setting up more negotiations as Congress moves closer to having to resort to yet another temporary extension to the current law before it expires at the end of this month.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called for the cloture vote in an effort to wipe the slate clean of Republican amendments that Democrats say should not be considered because they are not related to highways.

The two-year reauthorization of funding for highway and transit programs — backed by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., and passed from committee with unanimous bipartisan support — has been stalled on the floor for a month.

“End this dithering,” Boxer chided her colleagues, referring to Republican amendments on topics such as birth control and oil drilling. “Let’s get on with this.”

The cloture motion failed to attract the 60 votes necessary to proceed to a yes or no vote on the bill, coming up short 52-44. The vote came hours after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he might take up the Senate bill in the House.

In that chamber, a five-year highway bill proposed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman John Mica, R-Fla., has prompted angry reaction from proponents of mass transit because it calls for funding transit through appropriations rather than through the Highway Trust Fund.

During debate over the bill pending in the Sentate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urged Republican colleagues to oppose cloture and provide more time for negotiation on GOP amendments.

“My concern is that if we have cloture right now, we won’t have an agreement,” McConnell said. He added that the ultimate passage of the bill “won’t be stopped.”

“We anticipate being able to wrap it up,” he said.

The slow progress in both chambers means it is nearly certain that lawmakers will need to pass a short-term extension to the current law before it expires March 31.

If time runs out, construction projects nationwide will grind to a halt as federal money stops flowing.

“It is clear that there will need to be an extension of current law beyond March 31 while the Senate and the House work through their respective processes,” said Janet Kavinoky, executive director for transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Reid and McConnell need to come to agreement on both non-germane and germane amendments and then the bill can go forward,” she said.

“I don’t know why everything we do has to be a fight,” Reid said. “Unless Congress acts, the American economy will pay the price for partisan bickering.”

The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) expired on Sept. 30, 2009 and has been extended eight times since then.

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