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The Times-Picayune - Congress Passes 90-Day Stopgap Transportation Bill

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By Bruce Alpert

The U.S. House and Senate approved a 90-day extension Thursday of the federal transportation program, just two days before financing was to expire. But the temporary bill left some members livid, including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who complained it doesn't contain new funding sources and means some projects will be stalled, costing potentially 100,00 construction jobs.

"What kind of way is this to run a government?" asked Landrieu, saying the House should have passed a $109 billion, two-year measure passed by the Senate with bipartisan support.

Despite protests by Landrieu and other Democratic senators, the Senate approved the extension by a voice vote. The House approved the measure by a 266-158 margin.

Landrieu expressed disappointment that the stop-gap bill doesn't include a provision from the Senate-passed transportation bill that funnels 80 percent of any Clean Water Act fines from the 2010 BP oil spill to the five Gulf States harmed by the disaster.

The Environmental Law Institute said the Clean Water Act calls for fines of between $1,100 per barrel of oil spilled, to $4,300 per barrel, depending on whether BP is determined to have acted with due diligence or with gross negligence. It could generate as much as $17.6 billion in fines, of which 80 percent would go to Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi and Florida if the Restore Act is implemented.

"I don't know what magic there is about the next 90 days," Landrieu said. "But I'm going to register my vote as 'no,' and then I'm going to go home and I'm going to work harder in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast to explain to the people of our region how much is at stake."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the extension is the responsible course of action, giving him and other House leaders more time to try to craft a bill that could pass the House.

The measure originally drafted by House GOP leaders ran into stiff opposition from conservative Republicans who argued it spent too much money and Democrats who opposed measures dramatically expanding areas open to oil drilling, including places off the Florida and California coast opposed by local and state leaders.

Stephen Bell, spokesman for Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, the lead sponsor of the Restore Act in the House, continued to express optimism that the measure will become law.

"While the House and Senate continue to work out their differences on a highway bill, this extension is a necessary measure that keeps negotiations alive, and Congressman Scalise continues to talk with House leadership who remain committed to passing the full Restore Act, because we've always known that there's more than one way to get this bill to the president's desk," Bell said.

Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, broke with his party's leadership and voted against the temporary extension, saying the Senate bill, though far from perfect, might be a viable solution.

"Federal surface transportation programs have been operating under temporary extensions and flawed stimulus packages for two years," Fleming said Thursday. "It's time to give state transportation planners and road builders the certainty they need.

Unfortunately, the 90-day extension that was passed today simply creates more uncertainty for the highway industry and multiplies the cost of projects at a time when getting the most out of every tax dollar is critical."

Fleming joined Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, in voting against the 90-day extension. The other five members, all Republicans, voted for the bill.

Once the House passes a transportation bill, it will have to reconcile it with the Senate version via negotiations between the two bodies. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., is almost certain to be on the conference committee that would be charged with drafting a final compromise bill.

"As a leading Republican conferee tasked with producing the final version of this highway bill, I'll place keeping the Restore language in the bill as an absolute top focus," Vitter said.


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