Bush Veto Threat on Highway Bill Poses Dilemma

Mon March 15, 2004 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) President Bush has chosen a giant, jobs-rich highway bill to show his election-year toughness against congressional spending, to the chagrin of many Republican lawmakers, governors and business allies.

Weeks of talks have yet to reach a middle ground between the Bush administration, which has threatened to veto any bill that goes much beyond Bush’s $256 billion limit, and GOP lawmakers who say the nation’s crumbling infrastructure demands far more. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-IL, set the target at $275 billion.

Rep. John Mica of Florida, a senior Republican on the House Transportation Committee, said a stalemate over the six-year blueprint for government spending on highways and mass transit could wreak both economic and political havoc.

"If we don’t do it soon, there’ll be a double hurt," Mica said.

Hastert is so frustrated that he refuses to discuss the bill with anyone at the White House other than Bush.

The Senate last month brushed off the veto threat and passed a $318 billion bill –– $100 billion more than the previous plan –– that backers said would make roads safer and less congested while creating at least 1 million jobs.

The stage then moved to the House, where the Transportation Committee, led by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, pushed for $375 billion, an amount the Transportation Department has said is necessary to ensure real improvements in the nation’s highway and transit systems.

Young proposed gradually raising the federal gas tax, now 18.4 cents per gallon, by a nickel over the next six years. The gas tax goes into the highway trust fund, which is supposed to provide all federal highway money going to the states.

Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the senior Democrat on the Transportation Committee, estimated that 100 Republicans would join all 205 Democrats in the House in voting for a 5-cent increase in gasoline taxes to pay for better highways. With quick passage, states could have $30 billion worth of construction projects under way by Labor Day, creating 400,000 new jobs, he said.

"It simply doesn’t make any sense at all to oppose this kind of investment," Oberstar said. "What more than this could lift the economy?"

But with the White House flatly rejecting any notion of a gasoline tax increase, GOP leaders in the House have no plans to allow even a vote on one.

Hastert said March 11 he was now looking at a spending target of about $275 billion, searching for a figure that "won’t get vetoed and we can negotiate with the Senate." Lawmakers, he said, "will have their needs met, maybe not quite as fully as they had hoped."

Lawmakers like to boast about the federal money they steer to their districts, especially in an election year.

The Republican leader from Illinois also took a shot at White House negotiators, saying he will now discuss the issue only with Bush. "I don’t deal with his people any more. We weren’t getting straight numbers from his people and they changed their mind in the middle of the process."

So far, the White House has withstood a barrage of lobbying from some of its closest political and business allies.

Some 20 business, construction and union groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote lawmakers that there was "no more important legislation" for the economy and "we cannot support any House legislation below the Senate number."

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) contends that a $270 billion bill would create 490,000 fewer jobs than the Senate bill, with California alone losing 64,000 jobs and Florida 30,000.

Matthew Jeanneret, a spokesman for the association, said people around the country who generally support Bush –– business groups and mom-and-pop highway contractors –– were calling the White House in a "sustained and coordinated effort to create pressure’" for a more expensive bill.

Young, in a blunt letter to Bush last month, said he was "extremely disappointed with the ’take it or leave it’ approach taken by your advisers."

Bush is not without his supporters in the dispute, particularly among conservatives. Ronald D. Utt, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the president’s advisers were "absolutely correct" in threatening a veto of a bill that perpetuates what Utt called the "nation’s largest spoils system."

There have been other fiscally irresponsible candidates for what would be Bush’s first veto, including a 2002 farm aid bill and the Medicare prescription drug bill passed last year, Utt said. But the highway bill, he added, was "the first one that came up in a year where there was a real sense that his fiscally conservative supporters were substantially disillusioned."