The Senate has approved a $17.6-billion package aimed at job creation, including a highway and transit program extension through December and a large infusion to strengthen the weakened Highway Trust Fund.

The Senate  68-29 vote on March 17  is the final congressional action on the measure, the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act. It now goes to the White House, where  President Obama is expected to sign it.

The vote was a bit of a departure from the intense partisan fighting in Congress, as 11 Republicans joined 57 Democrats in favor of the bill.

The result was good news for surface-transportaqtion programs, which have been operating under a series of stopgaps since last September, when the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) expired.  The current extension is scheduled to lapse on March 28.

At a press conference after the vote, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the extension is “a great signal [of] confidence to our states,” providing them with highway-funding certainty through the end of the year.

 Besides the extension through Dec. 31, the bill shifts $19.5 billion to the Highway Trust Fund from the general fund, an amount that would more than cover a trust-fund shortfall that’s expected to arise by about August.

In addition, the bill restores highway funding for the rest of the calendar year to its 2009 level by effectively reversing a rescission in highway contract authority that occurred in September.

Beyond the bill’s transportation provisions, it expands the Build America Bonds program, which gives local governments  a federal subsidy to reduce their interest rates on public-works bonds that they issue. The legislation broadens the bond program to cover energy-efficiency and school construction projects.

 In addition, the measure exempts companies from the social Security payroll tax if they hire people who were unemployed for at least 60 days.

At an estimated $17.6 billion, the "HIRE" act is “a modest package,” acknowledges Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). But he says, “It’s a great start.”

Senate Democrats plan to turn next to legislation to promote lending to small businesses, Schumer says.

The Senate also is debating a two-year aviation reauthorization bill, which would include funding for federal airport construction grants.