Bill benefits Vermont on transportation, student loans


Congress gave final approval Friday to legislation that combines a two-year transportation measure with bills to extend subsidized student loans and revamp federal flood insurance, wrapping up a bruising session with measures that will be popular on the campaign trail.

The $6.7 billion student loan provision extends the current 3.4 percent interest rate on Stafford loans for one year, financed by changes in pension laws and a restriction on the length of time students could get those loans. The flood insurance program increases premiums and requires people living near levees to have coverage.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., hailed the student loan extension Friday, saying it was expected to benefit 19,024 Vermont students with an average savings of $1,020 per borrower.

“This is great news and will provide immediate relief to Vermont families struggling to pay college tuition bills,” Welch said in a statement. “And it’s a good example of how Congress can set aside its differences for the benefit of the American people.”

The transportation portion includes $464 million for Vermont over the next two years. An amendment attached by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., allows the Federal Highway Administration to cover 90 percent of the cost of road repair in states recovering from extreme natural disasters.

The final $127 billion transportation-education package angered fiscal conservatives and liberal environmentalists alike, but leaders in both parties — along with many rank-and-file lawmakers — wanted to put the issues behind them.

Exhausted members of both parties pointed to the legislation as a tonic for the ailing job market, as well as proof that an unpopular Congress could get something done. The House passed it by a vote of 373-52, the Senate by 74-19. All the “no” votes were by Republicans.

“When all is said and done, this bill is what it is,” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, a West Virginia Democrat who was one of the senior negotiators. “It means jobs.”

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a freshman Republican from Washington state, called the measure “a symbol of how Congress is supposed to operate and why we are here.”

The transportation legislation extends federal highway, rail and transit programs for 27 months, authorizing $120 billion in spending, financed by the existing 18.4 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and the 24.4 cents-a-gallon diesel tax, as well as about $19 billion in transfers from the Treasury, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group. That was a retreat for many House conservatives, who had vowed to scale back or eliminate those taxes and shift responsibility to the states.

For Republicans, the huge measure violated a number of promises that the new leadership had made to the Tea Party-fueled electorate that brought it to power. Bills were not to be bundled together at the last minute. They were supposed to be posted on the Internet 72 hours in advance, and they were generally to rein in — not expand — the scope of government.

During the 2010 campaign, Republicans taunted Democrats for enacting laws like the health care legislation that were too long to read. At 596 pages, posted on Thursday night, few could have read this one.

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