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Highway Bill As Establishment Vs. Tea Party, Chapter 943

The Tea Party-aligned groups that pushed the strategy that led to last fall's government shutdown are back, this time urging a "no" vote on the short-term extension to the federal highway funding program.

FreedomWorks, Heritage Action and the Club for Growth have all announced they intend to use the vote when grading lawmakers.

Call it the latest round in the Republican's Party's battle between its establishment and Tea Party wings. And as has often been the case in recent months, on Tuesday afternoon, the establishment prevailed.

The House passed a 10-month replenishment of the Highway Trust Fund on a 367-55 vote. That included 181 of the 226 Republicans voting.

House Speaker John Boehner called it a "solid piece of legislation."

"These are difficult decisions in difficult times, in an election year. But it's important we find a solution," Boehner said.

The bill transfers $11 billion to the fund, which is weeks away from dropping to zero. Some of that money comes from extending customs fees for another year. Some comes from a fund for cleaning up leaky underground storage tanks. But more than half comes from an accounting maneuver called "pension smoothing," which essentially increases tax collections in the near term but decreases revenue from corporate income taxes in later years.

The outside groups and other critics called those transfers "a bailout," and urged lawmakers to oppose the plan.

"The costly 2012 transportation bill spent so much taxpayer money that it exhausted the Highway Trust Fund," Heritage Action's Michael Needham wrote in a fundraising e-mail a few hours before the vote. "And now liberals want new deficit spending to bail out their program. And unfortunately, they might get their way."

Those pleas, though, got little attention in the House and are likely to get even less attention in the Democratically controlled Senate. Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden is also using pension smoothing, though not to the same extent, in his version of the bill.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has warned the states that, absent congressional action, they would start getting reduced reimbursement checks by mid-August for their highway construction projects.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shirish Dáte is an editor on NPR's Washington Desk and the author of Jeb: America's Next Bush, based on his coverage of the Florida governor as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Palm Beach Post.