This vote was on a motion to allow the Senate to disregard budgeting rules that could otherwise have been used to stall a bill funding federal highways, bridge construction, mass transit systems, and other transportation projects around the country.
Although the federal transportation bill had bipartisan support in the Senate, some senators objected that the bill used “budget gimmicks” to hide its true cost. Historically, the federal tax on gasoline has been used to raise money to fund transportation projects. However, in recent years the amount raised by the gas tax has not kept pace with the demand for transportation spending. Rather than raise taxes or cut spending, senators diverted funding from other parts of the federal budget to transportation projects.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) argued that this amounted to budgetary sleight-of-hand that violated an agreement on spending that Congress and the White House had reached in August 2011. He called for the Senate to vote down the motion and rewrite the transportation bill.
“We do need to spend money on highways, so let's spend less on something else. Last August, the whole world watched as our country was brought to the brink in order for Congress to finally put strict limitations on spending for just two years, and barely seven months later, members have already violated that agreement with this highway bill,” Sen. Corker said after the vote. “By voting to waive this point of order, members on both sides of the aisle have demonstrated to the American people that they can’t be trusted to keep even modest commitments to reduce spending.”
Other senators argued that the motion was necessary to keep the transportation bill moving forward. Congress needed to act quickly because federal funding for transportation projects was set to run out at the end of the month. If the bill was delayed by Sen. Corker’s objections, it could result in layoffs for thousands of U.S. workers as construction projects ground to a halt in early April, they argued.
“We desperately need this bill. It is interesting to me that so many of my good friends – and they are friends, including the senator from Tennessee – will vote as they did back in 2008 for $700 billion for a bailout and then something such as this comes up and somehow this is an excuse to kill the bill,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) said. “I urge my conservative friends particularly to go ahead and vote for the highway bill.”
The motion to set aside budget rules was passed by a vote of 66-31. Voting “yea” were 52 Democrats and 14 Republicans. Voting “nay” were 30 Republicans and 1 Democrat. As a result, the federal transportation bill moved forward in the Senate without being delayed by budget-related issues.