WASHINGTON (AP) – The House took emergency steps Wednesday to keep vital federal programs from going broke while Congress is absent next month, removing the threat that people would lose their unemployment checks or chances to get a low-interest housing loan while lawmakers are on vacation.

The legislation, passed 363-68, includes the transfer of more than $14 billion from the general treasury fund to endangered federal trust funds for unemployment benefits and highway projects.

“If we fail to act today our people, our states and our economy will be harmed,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. The vote came as the House planned to break this week for its summer recess. The Senate is expected to approve the legislation before it recesses at the end of next week.

The bill has three parts: bolstering the federal unemployment insurance trust fund and the highway trust fund and increasing lending authority for the Federal Housing Administration, a major source of low-interest housing loans. All three programs could run out of money in August without congressional action.

The bill provides “such sums as may be necessary” for the federal unemployment insurance fund, a pool of money financed by payroll taxes. Aides estimated that the actual transfer of money from the general treasury will be about $7.5 billion.

The program backs up state unemployment programs and helps pay for federally mandated extensions of state unemployment benefits.

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said 18 states already have loan balances exceeding $12 billion and more are expected to request assistance from the federal fund in the coming weeks as the national jobless rate approaches 10 percent.

He said about 9 million unemployment insurance recipients are now getting an extra $100 a month as a result of the stimulus package passed in February, and 3 million unemployed workers are receiving extended benefits.

States generally offer 26 weeks in unemployment benefits, averaging around $300 a week. Technically, the legislation does not add to the federal deficit because the states are obligated to repay the money they borrow.

The bill also raises the ceiling for the FHA’s mortgage insurance program for this fiscal year from $315 billion to $400 billion. The securities guarantees authority for the Government National Mortgage Association – or Ginnie Mae – would increase from $300 billion to $400 billion.

The FHA became the main source of home loans to borrowers with poor credit and low down payments after the collapse of the subprime lending market. The agency lets borrowers take out home loans with down payments as low as 3.5 percent, compared with 20 percent for a typical loan that doesn’t require mortgage insurance. The FHA currently backs around a third of new home loans, up from about 3 percent in 2006.

Monthly volume has averaged almost $33 billion a month over the last three months, and with only $59 billion left in the fund for the fiscal year ending in September, it appears likely that the remaining authority will be exhausted in August.

“Cutting out 25 percent of available mortgages would be a disaster, decimating the market and hurting millions of prospective homeowners,” said Rep. John Olver, D-Mass.

The highway trust fund portion shifts $7 billion from the general budget to the fund, the pot of money that is supposed to provide the $40 billion the federal government spends every year on roads, bridges and infrastructure. It would be the second such bailout for the fund in a year, following an $8 billion transfer from the general budget last September.

The infusion of money would allow the fund to stay solvent through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

“If we do not act we will have devastating consequences in every one of the states across this nation as far as closing down transportation projects,” said Rep. John Mica of Florida, top Republican on the Transportation Committee.

Revenues for the fund, derived from the federal fuel tax drivers pay at the pump, has been steadily declining in recent years as drivers switch to more fuel-efficient cars and drive less. Congress also has rejected any increase in the tax – 18.4 cents a gallon or 24.3 cents for diesel – that was last changed in 1993.

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez, in a conference call Tuesday with state transportation officials, said that while the shortfall won’t shut down federal aid highway projects, it will slow down reimbursements to states. Payments now made on a daily basis could be made weekly or twice a month, he said.

The House Transportation Committee is pressing for action on a $500 billion bill to restructure and finance surface transportation programs over the next six years. The Senate, backed by the White House, says there isn’t adequate time to consider a replacement for the current highway bill, which expires at the end of September, and is backing an 18-month extension of the current act.


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