Washington (CNN) – Alert: last-minute plot twist on a national issue that may involve your commute.
As the U.S. Highway Trust Fund skids toward an August 1 money shortage, the Senate decided Tuesday to keep the issue in limbo at least a day or two more.
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The chamber veered from the course many had expected, passing its own shorter-term fix for the fund rather than agreeing to a House version that would have ended the debate for the year.
If Congress doesn’t agree on a plan by Friday, state officials across the country have said they would have to freeze or cancel hundreds of highway and bridge projects.
But that deadline is still two days away. And so Tuesday the Senate surprised many inside and out of the chamber by overwhelming changing a House highway plan that some had considered a fait accompli.
That change came in two dramatic votes: First, senators voted overwhelmingly, 71-26, to pass a bipartisan plan that was similar to the House bill, except in how it divvyed up funding sources.
But that change wasn’t enough. Minutes later, the Senate trumped that first vote with another, setting up an even sharper contrast with the House.
That final winning measure–from Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Tom Carper of Delaware and Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee–passed 66-31 and would shorten the timeframe for highway money dramatically. The move would extend funding through December, rather than through May. Senators behind the plan argued that it would force this Congress to come up with a longer-term solution for highway funding rather than punt the problem to next year.
In addition, this Senate bill would do away with a controversial funding measure called “pension smoothing,” which allows corporations to contribute less to employee pensions.
“It was quite a team effort,” Carper said, still smiling about the win. He told CNN that the vote total should command some attention in the House. “We got very respectable margins, by more than two-to-one.”
Playing ping pong on a deadline
Senators then sent the changed bill back to the House, setting up a likely ping pong volley between the two chambers. Earlier Tuesday Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, drew a hard line.
“I just want to make this clear,” Boehner said, “if the Senate sends a highway bill over here with (the Wyden-Hatch version), we’re going to strip it out and put the House-passed provisions back in and send it back to the Senate.”
Boehner’s office did not respond to CNN’s questions about the new Senate highway bill with the shorter timeline and changed funding plan.
Ignore for a moment that nearly every member of Congress agrees that both bills are short-term fixes and a longer-term solution is needed at some point.
How will Congress avoid a highway crisis this week? Before Tuesday’s vote, the two top Senate leaders – Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – insisted that Congress will pass a solution in time.
The impending deadline and Congress’ plan to leave for five weeks starting Friday, may give the House an advantage. There may not be enough time for both the House and Senate to pass new highway bills. Instead, the House could pass its version again, go home and force the Senate to decide between shutting down construction projects and accepting the House version.
After Tuesday’s vote, Republicans who supported the rival Senate plans said they believed that the House bill ultimately would win out.
“I think in the end that’s what will happen,” Hatch said to reporters.
Sen. Roger Wicker was another Republican who voted for the Senate plans.
“In the end, the Speaker may very much insist, and he’s got the leverage,” the Mississippi lawmaker told CNN. “But I wanted to give a better proposal an opportunity.”