Congress passed a sweeping highway, student-loan, and flood-insurance package on Friday, defying assertions that the divided institution is incapable of bipartisan legislation in an election year.
The measure, technically a conference report for a 27-month surface-transportation authorization bill, became a vehicle for other popular legislation. That is because it may be the last big bill Congress passes before the election.
The highway bill authorizes about $100 billion in transportation spending over 27 months. The student-loan bill freezes interest rates on federally subsidized student loans for undergraduates at 3.4 percent for one year but covers the $6 billion cost of the freeze by reducing aid for undergraduates after six years. The bill also raises money by increasing pension rates and updating pension accounting for firms.
The flood package authorizes a national flood-insurance program affecting property owners in flood-prone areas for five years, while imposing reforms to the program. The bill was included after a deal was reached between Senate Banking Committee members and a group of mostly Southern senators who won removal of language requiring flood-insurance policies to cover residual risk behind dams and levees.
Coming on the heels of the Senate’s passage of a farm bill, the package shows the Congress remains capable of legislating on matters like roads and farm subsidies that traditionally win bipartisan backing.
The highway bill represents a deal between House Republicans and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a leading liberal. The compromise more closely resembles the Senate’s preferred version of the bill, though House Republicans won what they called significant changes. House Republicans dropped provisions requiring construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and blocking Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate coal ash. But the bill streamlines environmental review of infrastructure projects. Republicans also noted it consolidates or eliminates about 50 transportation programs.
The package also includes a bill that dedicates penalties paid by BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to restoration in Gulf Coast states.