WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congress cleared away months of obstacles in a few hours last week by voting for a major bill that renews federal highway programs, blocks an increase in student loan rates and renews national flood insurance.
The varied initiatives were combined into a single package that passed the House and Senate shortly before lawmakers recessed for a weeklong Fourth of July break.
Lawmakers were motivated by the calendar to shed a “do-nothing” label they’ve borne this session.
The current highway funding law was to expire on Saturday, threatening states with uncertainty on transportation planning. On Sunday, the interest rate on Stafford loans was set to double to 6.8 percent, impacting 7.4 million students. The flood program expired July 31.
The completed legislation keeps the student loan rate at 3.4 percent for another year, at a cost of $6 billion.
It also authorizes federal highway and mass transit funding for the next two years, largely at the same levels that states receive now. Both Democrats and Republicans hailed it as jobs-saving measure.
Members of both parties largely agreed on the aims of the initiatives, although it took until last week to agree on how to pay for them, mainly through increases in what companies pay in premiums for pension insurance.
The final agreement also stripped out approval sought by House Republicans for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, and a GOP proposal to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating coal ash.
The package also renews the National Flood Insurance program for five years.
The Senate vote on the bill was 74-19.
Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both D-Wash., voted for it.
The House vote was 373-52.
Congressman Norm Dicks, D-Wash., and Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., voted for the bill.
AG HELD IN CONTEMPT
The Republican-controlled House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, the culmination of a dispute over documents linked to the Fast and Furious gunrunning operation that went bad.
Holder became the first sitting Cabinet member to be held in contempt.
Republicans charged Holder refused to provide all information they requested related to the gun sting. After handing over thousands of documents, Holder said those still outstanding were not relevant and also reflected internal deliberations. President Barack Obama asserted executive privilege to keep them shielded.
The vote for contempt was 255-67. More than 100 Democrats staged a walkout from the House chamber, refusing to vote on what they called a politically motivated campaign against the Obama administration’s top justice official.
Herrera Beutler voted for the contempt citation. Dicks voted against it.
House Republicans and the administration clashed over an investigation into a federal operation on the southwest border that allowed roughly 2,000 guns into Mexico in the hopes of tracking them to Mexican cartels.
Two of the guns were found at the scene of where Border Patrol Agency Brian Terry was shot in December 2010 just north of the border, triggering probes into a program that ultimately was ended.