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Highway bill clears Senate, but GOP dissenters foreshadow House fight

Some senators challenged not just how to pay for a $109 billion highway bill, but also whether Washington should even continue its role financing the nation's roads, bridges, and ports.

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With big achievements in short supply, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California noted that Wednesday’s vote to pass a transportation bill with wide bipartisan support was one “that brought us together.”

“I am very humbled by that because Lord knows it's hard to find those moments when we come together,” she told reporters after the vote.

But not all senators are feeling the bipartisan bliss in approving the two-year, $109 billion highway bill. While outnumbered more than 3 to 1 by “yea” votes, 22 Republican senators opposed the bill because they don’t agree on how to pay for it. Some are also questioning whether the federal government should get out of the transportation business almost entirely -- a challenge to more than half a century of federal policy.  

Both issues are likely to define the coming House debate -- and to determine just how (or if) the Senate transportation bill becomes law.

Thirty senators voted for an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina that would devolve almost all transportation funding to the states, slashing the federal gasoline tax (the chief method for funding transportation at the national level) and allowing states to set their own transportation priorities.

“Congress needs to wake up and realize we’re $15 trillion in debt, and we can’t keep doing these status-quo, big-spending compromises,” said Senator DeMint, a godfather of the tea party movement.

“We need commonsense reforms of the highway program that would empower states with flexibility to make their own transportation decisions," he added in a statement after the vote. “If we devolved the highway program to the states we could build and repair roads faster and less expensively.”


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