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A rare flurry of congressional activity

President Obama basically just wanted two things from Congress before it broke for a 4th of July recess: a bill to prevent student loan interest rates from going up and the federal transportation bill. Both are important to the economy, and Obama invested quite a bit of time and energy into shining a spotlight on each priority.

Complicating matters, time was running out -- if lawmakers failed to act by the end of today, student loan interest rates would double, and highway workers nationwide would stop getting paid.

For all the complaining I do about Congress' inability to do anything, it's only fair to note that today, by some small miracle, lawmakers actually managed to do what needed to be done.

Congress on Friday approved legislation that will extend federal highway programs through 2014, a low interest rate on student loans for one year, and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) for five years.

Leaders in the House and Senate negotiated the giant package, leaving no doubt that it would have enough support to pass. The bill will likely be the last major piece of legislation approved by Congress until after the November elections.

The House voted 373-52 in favor of the bill, which was supported by every voting Democrat, while 52 Republicans opposed it. In the Senate, the tally was 74-19, with 23 Republicans joining every Democrat in voting for the measure. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) voted present, while Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) missed the vote.

The flood-insurance bill was especially satisfying, since Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had threatened to delay the vote indefinitely unless Democrats gave into his culture-war tantrum.

The White House announced soon after that President Obama will sign each measure into law before their respective deadlines.

To be sure, the concessions necessary to get the bills done were far from ideal. The highway bill was a must-pass piece of legislation, but it's much smaller than it should be, and many of its priorities are deeply flawed. The student loan interest rate bill is obviously a no-brainer, but it's being paid for increasing premiums paid to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

Still, moving forward, even if it's just crawling forward, is evidence of progress -- and in this Congress, I'll take what I can get. A month ago, these bills looked like they were dead, and the economy would take a severe hint. Warts notwithstanding, today's success brings a sigh of relief.