US Congress Passes Huge Transportation Bill

U.S. Congress Passes Huge Transportation Bill

Legislation does not include Keystone XL Pipeline.

The U.S. Congress overcame months of division to pass a massive transportation bill Friday that secures a two-year extension of highway funding, and prevented a doubling of student loan interest rates.

The legislation, which now heads to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature, notably did not include the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline long sought by congressional Republicans as well as the party's White House hopeful Mitt Romney.

But it averts a crisis that was looming for the country's highway construction projects, and provides as many as three million jobs in the sector, according to Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California.

The bill sets aside about $105 billion over 27 months to fund thousands of road, bridge and railway projects, including repairs to a steadily declining national infrastructure.

Lawmakers were up against a rapidly approaching weekend deadline that would have seen funding evaporate had they not agreed to the money before a short-term extension expired.

They also needed to quickly resolve the student loan crisis, which led to the incorporation of that measure in the transport bill following months of bickering over details on the two issues.

The bill also shores up the federal flood insurance program for another five years.

The package sailed through the House with 373 votes to 52, and then passed the Senate 74-19, with one member voting present.

The White House praised the bill's passage, saying that "for months, President Obama has been calling on Congress to take up these two important priorities before middle class families pay the price for inaction."

"Thanks to Congress heeding that call today, millions of American students will avoid a $1,000 debt hike while millions of construction workers will be able to stay on the job," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.

Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, hinted at the protracted nature of the deliberations that eventually produced a bill both sides could live with.

"It has been a very long and winding road to get to this place," but the bipartisan cooperation "sends a tremendous signal to the people of America, and that is that we can work together," Boxer said after the vote.

House Speaker John Boehner said that while the bill was "far from perfect" -- he expressed disappointment the pipeline was left out -- it slashed red tape involved in obtaining permits and eliminated government waste.

"This bipartisan agreement ensures that taxpayer dollars are spent on high-priority infrastructure projects, not bike paths and beautification," he said.

The bill ensured that student loan interest rates, currently at 3.4%, will not double to 6.8% for more than 7 million students as had been scheduled on July 1.

Obama had campaigned relentlessly on the student loan issue, traveling to colleges and universities where he called on members of Congress to extend the low interest rates.

Both parties said they didn't want to see the student loan rates go up; the question was how to come up with the $6 billion cost of extending the low rates.

The money is expected to come from raising premiums for federal pension insurance.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2012

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