By Richard Simon
June 29, 2012, 2:17 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Congress, in a rare display of bipartisanship, on Friday sent to President 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 due to take effect Sunday.
“The American people finally will have a jobs bill from this Congress,’’ said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who is the Washington, D.C., 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 Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other mayors to fast-track bus and rail projects in traffic-choked regions.
The House approved the bill by a 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,’’ said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. She said the bill’s passage was evidence “that we can work together.’’
The bill was passed only after lawmakers once again faced deadlines — a possible shutdown of the highway program Saturday 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 oil pipeline from Canada. Environmentalists said the bill would weaken environmental reviews in order to satisfy Republican 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 L. 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 sources 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.
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