By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Congress averted a weekend shutdown of thousands of transportation construction projects on Thursday by passing a stopgap funding bill that buys time for House Speaker John Boehner to resolve Republican differences over long-term financing.
The Senate approved by voice vote a measure passed earlier in the day by the House of Representatives that gives a 90-day funding extension for road, bridge and rail construction projects. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it.
The temporary measure averts layoffs for as many as 1.5 million construction workers who would have faced work stoppages at midnight Saturday. But it did little to resolve an impasse over long-term funding that is expected to be difficult to resolve in a heated election year.
The Senate, led by Democrats, accepted the temporary measure after the Republican-led House refused to take up a $109 billion two-year bill passed by the Senate with strong bipartisan support. "There is virtually no desire to force a huge fight over that right now," said a Democratic leadership aide.
The delay, however, will put the debate over transportation funding squarely in the path of November 6 presidential and congressional election campaigns.
The battle over transport funding underscores deep divisions in the House over spending measures and the scope of the federal government's powers.
Boehner has failed to gain support for his five-year, $260 billion transport funding bill, casting doubt over legislation that has passed in past years with far less political drama.
"It's never been routine, but it's never really been quite this messy," James Burnley, who served as Transportation Secretary under President Ronald Reagan, said of transportation funding legislation.
Neither party has found it politically attractive to address long-term financing problems for the Highway Trust Fund, which is short of money because revenues from federal gasoline taxes are no longer sufficient to fund it, Burnley said.
JOBS PLAN RETOOLED
Boehner once called the House transportation bill his signature jobs plan because of the many jobs it would protect or create. But to satisfy fiscal conservatives in his party, Boehner will likely have to scale back the measure.
At the same time, he will have to address concerns of Republicans from urban areas who objected to efforts to end dedicated funding for mass transit projects.
Boehner has battled for more than a year to control his unruly caucus, in which members backed by the Tea Party movement have refused to support spending legislation. He has needed some Democratic support to push measures through.
But in the House version of the bill, Democrats objected to provisions to expand offshore oil drilling and force approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.
In the past, transportation bills have been bipartisan and largely non-controversial because members could direct billions in spending to projects in their home districts, taking credit for boosting local economies and creating jobs. Huge U.S. budget deficits and a ban on steering federal money to individual projects through earmarks changed all of that.
The measure passed on Thursday was the ninth temporary transportation bill passed by Congress since a 2005 authorization expired in 2009.
Jeffrey Shoaf of the Associated General Contractors of America, an industry trade group, expressed concern that lawmakers would be unable to reach agreement on a long-term funding extension in an election year.
"The big fear is that politics will get in the way and congress won't do it," Shoaf said.
(Additional reporting by David Lawder; editing by Vicki Allen, Todd Eastham and Marilyn W. Thompson)