Can Congress overcome gridlock to replenish Highway Trust Fund?

Highway and roads are seen near Los Angeles International Airport May 7, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.


It's no secret that the Republican-led House listens closely to its conservative base: Last fall, the conservative groups the Club for Growth and Heritage Action helped convince Republicans on Capitol Hill to shut down the government. Now, those same groups are opposed to a bill to replenish the Highway Trust Fund and have warned lawmakers that the vote on the bill will be included on their election-year scorecards.

Nevertheless, the House on Tuesday is expected to pass the legislation -- the first legislative response to a looming transportation crisis. Even the threat of poor ratings from the Club for Growth and Heritage can't push lawmakers to risk letting an estimated 700,000 Americans lose infrastructure jobs or letting transportation projects go unfunded.

Some conservatives are opposed to the measure, they say, because it's a short-term fix to a problem that calls for long-term reforms.

"There is no long-term solution because a long-term solution would require some tough choices, like raising the gas tax, and nobody wants to do that this close to an election," former House Republican aide John Feehery, the president of Quinn Gillespie Communications, told CBS News.

The bill up for a vote on Tuesday, from Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., pumps nearly $11 billion into the Highway Trust Fund in order to keep it solvent through next May. The plan, paid for by a combination of pension tax changes, customs fees and money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks, made it through committee last week and has not seen substantial opposition from members.

That's in spite of efforts by some conservatives who want to see longer-term reforms take precedent.

"I think most Americans want Congress to stop kicking the can down the road," Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action, told CBS News. He penned a blog post for the group Monday that urged Republicans to stop perpetually bailing out the fund by way of "budget maneuvers and accounting gimmicks." He said that Democrats are exaggerating the effects on the U.S. infrastructure system if it becomes insolvent this fall.

But even Needham admitted it's "pretty unlikely" that conservatives will be able to derail the plan. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called it a "really solid bill" in a press conference last week. And even House Democrats, who allege the GOP has wasted three years of their majority by not pursuing a long-term plan for the Highway Trust Fund and other infrastructure projects, are likely to get on board.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) predicts that the fund, which has traditionally drawn its revenue from the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, will be depleted by late August. As a result, the funding that states get from the federal government for highway projects - about 45 percent - will start to shrink. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx warned reporters in May that letting the account expire could lead to 700,000 Americans losing jobs in road work, bridge-building and transit maintenance as 112,000 highway and 5,600 transit projects underway come to a halt.

The House will move first on a funding patch, although the Senate has another proposal from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and ranking Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. That approach relies less on pension tax changes and more on bringing in revenue by cracking down on eligibility for current tax laws.

Although Wyden believes his approach is superior, the White House came out in favor of the House plan on Monday even as it said Congress needs to work towards a long-term solution. That could increase pressure on Senate Democrats to pass the House plan rather than fight over a solution.

President Obama has sounded the alarm on the looming shortfall several times already this summer and is set to speak on the importance of investing infrastructure innovation at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in Virginia Tuesday. He will also visit the Port of Wilmington in Delaware Thursday to announce an initiative to increase private-sector investment in transportation.

The White House announced Monday that the president will press forward with executive actions where he can to improve U.S. infrastructure.

"The president has been very clear that we need to do more to improve our infrastructure in order to create jobs, provide certainty to states and communities, help American businesses, and grow our economy, and he has put forth a proposal that would do just that and pay for it by closing unfair tax loopholes and making commonsense reforms to our business tax system," a White House official told CBS News.

The White House also released a report Monday arguing that a failure to improve the nation's roads and bridges costs Americans billions every year in extra fuel, lost time, and extra freight transportation costs. The report also said roadway conditions were a significant factor in approximately one-third of the 32,000 traffic fatalities reported in 2013.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for