Congress approves new highway funding/student loan bill

Posted at 4:09 PM, Jun 29, 2012
and last updated 2012-06-29 16:09:57-04
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Congress gave final approval Friday to a $109 billion transportation funding bill as part of a package that includes a measure holding down interest rates on federal student loans.

Both issues are priorities of the president, and the legislation demonstrated rare bipartisan agreement in the deeply divided Congress.

The package won Senate approval with a 74-19 vote after earlier passing the House 373-52. It now goes to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.

Compromises on the transportation bill and the student loan issue, as well as a third component reauthorizing national flood insurance, came in rare bipartisan agreement during the same week that House Republicans enraged Democrats by voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.

Passing the package meant Congress beat looming deadlines, with highway repair funding and the lower student loan rates set to expire on June 30.

The transportation bill funds construction for highways, bridges and other transportation projects for two years in every state and congressional district in the nation. Obama has pushed for it as a way to boost job growth in the construction industry, and both parties expressed interest in reaching a deal.

Still, enactment of the measure marks a significant accomplishment for legislators. In recent years, Congress was only able to agree on a series of short-term extensions of the previous transportation bill passed in 2005.

Aides predicted the final bill would get large the bipartisan majorities it did, although some Republicans opposed the measure because they think it costs too much.

Both parties had to compromise on core issues.

Republicans dropped language that would have approved the Keystone XL pipeline and prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating harmful coal ash waste from power plants.

Democrats were forced to accept GOP demands to streamline and speed up the federal review process of construction projects.

Republicans said doing so would cut permitting times in half. They also got reforms that would allow states to opt out of federal mandates to spend highway dollars on bike paths and highway beautification projects. Doing so, Republicans said, would allow states to spend more on critical infrastructure projects.

Although the agreement includes many of the reforms the House GOP pushed for, it falls far short of the broader transportation and energy bill that House Speaker John Boehner unveiled earlier this year.

Boehner, R-Ohio, framed that initial proposal — which combined road and bridge projects with provisions promoting greater domestic energy production such as more drilling on public lands and approval of the Keystone XL pipeline — as a major jobs bill.

However, internal GOP divisions forced House Republican leaders to pull the measure and it never got a floor vote. The energy portions of the bill did pass the House, but none of those were included in the final measure negotiated with the Senate.

The student loan measure will keep interest rates at the current 3.4% rate, which was set to double to 6.8% on July 1.

Obama brought national attention to the student loan issue and started campaigning for it back in April. After the certain Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney, also said he supported extending the lower rate, Congress got serious about looking for ways to make it happen for another year.

During negotiations this week, legislators the the revenue to pay the $6 billion cost should come from changes to the way companies fund pension programs. The deal would also limit how long undergraduate students can go to school without accruing interest on student loans to six years.