After flurry of Senate action, now what?

It’s been a while since Congress passed legislation of note, so it’s worth pausing to consider the flurry of activity on the Senate floor yesterday, some of which was positive and some of which pointed towards more gridlock.

First, the good news. A month after a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, caused by House Republican intransigence, we were on track for another, even more serious FAA shutdown this week. There was bipartisan support for a spending measure to fund both the FAA and federal highway projects, but one senator, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn (R), stood in the way. If Coburn succeeded, up to 80,000 workers would be forced from their jobs as early as tomorrow.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

The Senate on Thursday approved legislation that extends taxes funding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) through January, and extends taxes funding federal highway spending through March.

The bill passed the House with ease on Tuesday and won Senate approval in a 92-6 vote. The bill was announced on Monday as the result of an agreement between House and Senate leaders, and was seen as high-priority because FAA funding will expire on Friday without reauthorization.

Coburn’s problem was language in the bill that requires some transportation funds to be spent on bike paths, trees along roadways, and infrastructure to direct storm runoff. The far-right Oklahoman said the funding shouldn’t carry such directives, and was willing to kill the entire bill over this. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Jim Inhofe (Okla.), the chair and ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, convinced Coburn reforms were on the way that would give states added flexibility, so Coburn backed down. Here’s the roll call on the final vote.

The bill has already passed the House and President Obama will sign it today.

The other Senate vote is a little more complicated. By a 62-to-37 margin, members agreed to direct $6.9 billion in funding to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for disaster relief.

Reid’s plan stands in contrast to one put forward by House Republicans, which would provide for another $1 billion in the current fiscal year, and another $2.65 billion in the next fiscal year for FEMA. But House Democrats today were already signaling disagreement with that plan, partly because they want more funding and partly because they disagree with the GOP offsets.

Senate acceptance of Reid’s amendment means the two chambers will likely have to sort out their differences on how exactly to boost FEMA funding. The House GOP proposal has not been approved yet, but is part of the continuing resolution introduced this week that would fund the federal government through Nov. 18.

Under the Senate’s approach, disaster relief is treated the way Congress has always treated it — as an emergency, without offsets. House Republicans say that’s not good enough, and insist on slashing funding for a job-creating Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program to help pay for the emergency aid.

If the House GOP ignores the Senate’s FEMA bill, and tries to short change FEMA through the House Republicans’ continuing resolution, we may be looking at another shutdown showdown.

I’d note for context that this process really shouldn’t be quite this difficult, but it’s what American voters asked for when they went to the polls in November 2010.