Congress passes highway and student loans bill

WASHINGTON – Faced with looming deadlines and a week-long 4th of July recess, both houses of Congress Friday passed legislation renewing nationwide transportation programs for another two years while also keeping federally-backed student loan interest rates from doubling.

Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann was the only member of Minnesota’s 10 person congressional delegation to vote against the final bill.

Both measures had been in legislative limbo for months due to partisan fights about the scope of the legislation and how to pay for it. The highway funding was a particular point of tension for many state departments of transportation because Congress has relied on short-term extensions for several years.

The White House and congressional Democrats had long pressed for the student loan interest rate extension. Republicans, including Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Education Committee, had initially balked but eventually reversed themselves and also supported an extension but differed with Democrats on how to pay for it.

As the June 30 deadline for both measures to expire approached, the pair were bundled together into one legislative package and were passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. The bill also extended federal flood insurance programs.

“This legislation paves the way for critical improvements in Minnesota’s roads and bridges and helps make our roads safer for families,” said DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in a statement.

The transportation bill will direct about $700 million worth of federal funds toward Minnesota during the 27 month lifespan of the bill.

“Compromise and common purpose is the glue that holds us together,” said DFL Rep. Tim Walz, who last week had secured passage of a non-binding motion in the House asking negotiators to wrap up work on the bills quickly.

Indeed, the final highway bill compromise disappointed some transportation advocates by allowing states to opt out of using money set aside for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

“The proposed new law from the House and Senate conference committee is a return to a 1950s highway-heavy emphasis with greatly reduced accountability and transparency,” said Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Liveable Communities.

A measure inserted by DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken in the Senate version of the bill would have given states and communities greater flexibility to use federal funds to repair bridges but that portion of the bill was also excised during negotiations.

“While I’m pleased that we passed this legislation, I’m going to continue to fight to improve Minnesota’s infrastructure and put people back to work,” said Franken.

The lengthy process required to negotiate an agreement upset Minneapolis Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat.

“After more than 100 days of inaction, John Boehner and Republicans in the House of Representatives have finally agreed to support America’s roads, bridges, and students,” said Ellison.

Minnesota’s Republican members of Congress stayed mum about the bill. Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth had urged lawmakers to vote against the measure and said their votes would recorded for the group’s annual scorecard which is used to determine whether the Club will support primary challengers against a member.