After political differences temporarily delayed legislation that ensured the future of the Federal Aviation Administration and the country's highway programs, the Senate eventually passed the measure Thursday evening.
The move puts an end -- at least for a few months -- to the questions about what would happen if either of the two programs expired. Legislation that allows the FAA to operate was set to expire Friday, and the law that funds and authorizes highway and transit spending would have expired Sept. 30.
The extension, which has already been passed in the House, will keep the FAA running through January and the surface transportation programs going through March.
Last month, transportation officials began to worry about what would happen come Sept. 30, the date that the current surface transportation law expires. The previous bill, known as SAFETEA-LU, expired two years ago, and the program has been kept alive through a series of temporary extensions ever since. Meanwhile, they simultaneously feared that the FAA could shut down too, since Congress already allowed that to happen once earlier this summer.
The House had passed an extension to both programs earlier this week, but in the Senate, Republican Tom Coburn moved to stop the legislation over objections to part of the highway bill that requires states to spend a portion of their federal funds on "transportation enhancements," or TEs, which are quality-of-life improvements such as pedestrian walkways, bike paths, and landscaping. The feds spent about $800 million per year on TEs under SAFETEA-LU. Generally, federal funding pays up to 80 percent of a TE project's costs, according to the Department of Transportation.
Politico reports that Senate leaders reached a deal with Coburn in which they agreed to include language in the long-term bill allowing states to opt-out of the TE requirements, in exchange for Coburn's agreement to end his hold on the immediate extension. Transportation officials praised Congress for issuing the extensions -- although most would have preferred that lawmakers crafted a multi-year bill.
"The six-month extension of federal highway and transit programs approved by Congress today ensures the continuation of thousands of job-creating infrastructure projects in every state," said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, in a statement.
Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate released outlines for their long-term highway bills earlier this summer, but they were wildly different. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has outlined a two-year, $109 billion program, while Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is pitching a six-year, $230 billion bill. Putting pressure on the lawmakers is the fact that the Highway Trust Fund – the pot of money that funds the highway and transit program – is quickly drying up.
Eventually, it became clear that they wouldn't have time to settle their differences before the current law was set to expire at the end of the month, and even President Obama stepped in and urged legislators to pass a temporary extension. The move will help lawmakers buy time as they try to reconcile the differences between the plans.