Lawmakers are under pressure to find a way to keep federal aid flowing to highway and transit programs beyond the end of this month after a transportation bill failed Tuesday to clear a procedural hurdle in the Senate.
The government's power to spend federal Highway Trust Fund money on transportation programs and to levy federal gas and diesel taxes
that support the trust fund are due to expire March 31. If that were to happen, states could have difficulty paying for construction projects already in progress and would likely be reluctant to commit to new projects, lawmakers and transportation interest groups said.
Senate Democrats fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to limit debate and move forward with the bill. All but two Republicans, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, voted against a motion to limit debate.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said amendments involving the Keystone pipeline and pollution control are holding the bill up unnecessarily.
"Things like this are extraneous to the bill, have nothing to do with federal transportation. I'm sorry they want to do this, but we're going to have to face many of these amendments just to get the bill done," said Durbin.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, and other Democrats accused Republicans of political obstruction. GOP senators said they were trying to preserve their right to offer amendments. Moments before the vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered Reid a compromise as the two lawmakers stood on the House floor. The proposal would cap amendments to a list of about 30 that have been offered by Democrats and Republicans.
"This is a bill that is not going to be stopped. It has broad bipartisan support," McConnell said. "We anticipate being able to wrap it up."
The U.S. House is considering a separate Transportation bill.