House Republicans announced plans Tuesday for a quick vote on a three-month highway spending extension, as Congress stared down a deadline to act or see states lose money for road projects during the summer driving season.
The leadership-driven plan would have the House vote on the legislation Wednesday, and then leave town for a five-week summer recess. The Senate would follow suit.
The approach amounts to an admission of failure to come up with a longer-term bill despite claims from all sides that that is the goal. And it kicks the issue into what is shaping up as a messy fall on Capitol Hill, with deadlines on President Barack Obama's Iran deal and funding to keep the government open, among other thorny issues.
"I want a long-term highway bill that's fully paid for. And that's been the goal all year. It continues to be the goal," said House Speaker John Boehner. "We've been trying to do this for four years. It's time to get it across the finish line."
The decision comes after the House and Senate clashed on dueling versions of the highway legislation. The House was pushing a five-month extension that could allow time to craft a much longer-term bill paid for with a tax reform deal sought by leaders of both parties. The Senate embraced a six-year bill that is expected to pass in the next couple days, though only three of those years are paid for.
But neither chamber would accept the other's approach, leaving the short-term extension as the only way out.
"It's frustrating, but the only thing worse than a short-term extension would be to allow funding to run out, so it's the best we can do right now," said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.
Said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.: "It's going to be a very vigorous fall."
Authority for federal highway aid payments to states will expire Friday at midnight without action. At the same time, if Congress doesn't act before then the balance in the federal Highway Trust Fund is forecast to drop below a minimum cushion of $4 billion that's necessary to keep aid flowing smoothly to states.
The House's three-month bill also includes $3.4 billion to fill a budget hole that the Department of Veteran's Affairs claims would force it to close hospitals and clinics nationwide. Republicans agreed to it as a necessity while complaining about the VA's failure to anticipate the problem.
It does not include language reviving the federal Export-Import Bank, which the Senate voted 64-29 to add to its version of the highway bill late Monday over angry opposition from conservatives. The bank, a federal agency that underwrites loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods, expired June 30 amid conservative opposition.
Supporters in the business community say the bank is necessary for U.S. competitiveness, but conservatives say it amounts to corporate welfare.
The House's approach ensures that the bank will stay dead at least into the fall, with prospects for reviving it uncertain at that point.