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Congress approves huge transit, student loan bill

WASHINGTON – Congress, in a rare display of bipartisanship, on Friday sent to President Barack Obama a roughly $105 billion transportation bill that lawmakers from both parties touted as perhaps the largest jobs measure of the year.

The measure also would avert a doubling of interest rates for millions of college student loans that was threatened to hit Sunday.

“The American people finally will have a jobs bill from this Congress,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who is Washington, D.C.’s delegate to the House.

The first major transportation bill since 2005, the legislation would keep highway and transit spending at current levels through the end of fiscal year 2014. It includes an expansion of a federal loan program sought by a group of U.S. mayors to fast-track bus and rail projects in traffic-choked regions.

The House approved the bill by a lopsided 373-52 vote, demonstrating the power of pothole politics. The Senate approved it 74-19.

The bill would provide financial incentives to states that crack down on distracted driving, require ignition interlock devices for DUI offenders and establish graduated licensing programs that restrict teenagers’ driving privileges. It also would impose new safety rules on interstate passenger buses in response to a number of high-profile tour bus crashes.

“Do not give up hope,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said, calling the bill’s passage evidence “that we can work together.”

President Barack Obama signed a one-week temporary measure Friday evening, permitting the highway and loan programs to continue until the full legislation reaches his desk.

The bill’s passage came only after lawmakers once again faced deadlines – a shutdown of the highway program today and a doubling of student interest loan rates Sunday. Lawmakers also did something unusual for this Congress: They compromised.

Republicans, in the face of White House opposition, dropped an effort to use the bill to try to advance the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Environmentalists said the bill would weaken environmental reviews in order to satisfy GOP calls for speedier project approvals.

“The dramatic reforms in this measure will get projects moving by cutting the red tape that delays projects across the country and drives up construction costs,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla.

Democrats made concessions that are likely to lead to less funding for bicycle, pedestrian and beautification projects. Republican leaders, despite opposition within their conservative ranks, agreed to find money from other than the gas tax to fund transportation projects, such as higher employer premiums to the pension insurance agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. All the no votes were cast by Republicans.

Under the bill, interest rates of 3.4 percent for subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduates will continue for another year, instead of doubling for new loans beginning on Sunday as scheduled by a law passed five years ago to save money.

Had the measure failed, interest rates would have mushroomed to 6.8 percent for 7.4 million students expected to get the loans over the coming year, adding an extra $1,000 to the average cost of each loan and antagonizing students – and their parents – four months before Election Day.

The 599-page bill, which could be one of the last major pieces of legislation to pass Congress before the election, includes other measures, from targeting the Asian carp, an invasive species threatening the Great Lakes, to steering 80 percent of the fines that will be paid by BP – up to $21 billion by one estimate – from the 2010 gulf oil spill to the Gulf Coast to help restore coastal ecosystems and rebuild economies in the region.

The bill also includes a measure to renew the federal flood insurance program. Congressional leaders paved the way for the bill’s approval after dropping a measure, opposed by lawmakers from California to Pennsylvania, that would have forced millions of property owners living near flood control facilities to buy flood insurance. The mandate was designed to shore up an insurance program that is billions of dollars in debt, largely because of Hurricane Katrina and other 2005 hurricanes.

Associated Press contributed to this report.


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