The House voted 385-34 on Wednesday, July 29 to approve an $8 billion short term highway bill that would extend federal transportation funding until October 29, 2015. After sending the bill (H.R. 3236) to the Senate, the House adjourned for the August recess. Funding for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) expires July 31.
The Senate today voted 65-34 for final passage of a six-year highway and transit bill. Passage of the legislative vehicle (H.R. 22) for the long-term package gives the Senate a bill it can take to conference with the House after the August recess. The Senate is expected to vote later this afternoon on H.R. 3236 to authorize programs until late October buying time for House and Senate to agree on a long-term measure.
H.R. 22 would move roughly $45 billion from the General Fund to the HTF and uses about $9 billion in offsets related to the sale of part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The Senate also agreed by voice vote Wednesday to include two amendments from Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). The Inhofe amendment would provide more funding for transit and would give the Energy secretary flexibility to adjust sales based on market prices, a move designed to get as much revenue from as few oil sales as possible.
McConnell’s proposal was a second-degree amendment to his original six-year measure. The amendment includes the following:
· Technical changes to language related to Disadvantaged Business Enterprises provisions and adjustment to inflation of the threshold for being a DBE.
· Striking redistribution language from the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program (TIFIA).
· Increasing authorization levels for the Tribal Transportation Program by $5 million per year and decreasing authorizations for the Federal Lands Access Program by the same amount.
· Adding language from an amendment from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) that would direct the Transportation Secretary to establish design standards for transportation projects that safely accommodate motorized and non-motorized users. The amendment was agreed at the July 15 Commerce, Science and Transportation markup of the safety portion of the bill.
· Increasing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration civil penalties to $21,000 and the civil penalty cap to $105 million. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said Tuesday this was a compromise to get more Democrats on board with the safety title.
· Clarifying the definition of 24/7 sobriety, tire pressure rulemaking provisions, the review time period for an annual safety report.
· Striking a Freedom of Information Act exemption for modification reporting under the title developed by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
· Amending a Freedom of Information Act exemption for cameras on passenger trains.
· The Eno Center described the changes as technical and substantive.
The Senate’s six-year bill would also reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, an export finance agency whose charter expired at the end of June. Many conservative Republicans oppose renewing the bank’s charter. They were unable to block the Ex-Im Bank amendment on the Senate bill, but House Republicans could have a better chance of keeping it off any long-term bill that chamber passes.
Once the short term measure passes the Senate, the chambers will punt the highway bill debate until the fall.
The House on Wednesday voted 256-170 to pass legislation that would make it easier for the secretary of Veterans Affairs to fire employees throughout the department. The bill (H.R. 1994) would permit the secretary to dismiss or demote any employee based on misconduct or poor performance.
The legislation comes as a result of frustration from lawmakers that employees responsible for the turmoil at the VA — such as the department’s wait times scandal last year and recent hospital construction woes — have not been held responsible for misconduct and mismanagement.
The bill is sponsored by House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) and would provide for a 45-day expedited appeals process with the Merit Systems Protection Board. The legislation also would permit the VA to recoup part of the pensions of employees who are convicted of a felony related to their service at the VA.
The measure would prohibit the secretary from moving against employees with active cases with the Office of Special Counsel, the agency tasked with resolving whistle-blower complaints, a provision aimed at protecting employees who disclose mismanagement, misconduct or illegal activity.
The House has adjourned for the August recess and will return September 8. The Senate will be in next week to wrap up work before recessing for the month.