House Defies White House Veto Threat with Highway Spending Bill

Mon April 05, 2004 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) The House overwhelmingly passed a $275 billion highway and transit bill April 2, testing the resolve of President Bush to hold the line on spending against the desires of lawmakers to bring home new jobs and projects before the election.

Supporters expect the legislation would created hundreds of thousands of construction jobs, but White House officials consider it fiscally irresponsible and have said they will advise Bush to veto it.

The 357-65 vote sent the election-year jobs-and-concrete bill to negotiations with the Senate, which in February approved a $318 billion package, also by more than the two-thirds margin needed to override a presidential veto.

In approving the popular measure, lawmakers from both parties showed impatience at spending restraints that the administration wanted to impose.

“Everyone would like to have more money, but because of the administration we don’t have more money,” said Rep. William Lipinski, D-IL, a top Democrat on the Transportation Committee.

The bill, said committee Chairman Don Young, R-AK, “does not completely do the job, but it is the nearest thing we can do at this time.”

Democrats attempted to boost spending to the Senate’s $318 billion level, but Republicans, citing tax increases needed to pay for the bigger bill, joined to stop them.

Many strong Republican allies, including business and construction groups, have said the Senate bill was at the lower end of what is needed to improve the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure and create a real infusion of jobs. Their argument will add pressure on House-Senate negotiators to move toward the Senate number.

The House bill, up from the $218 billion spent for the 1998-2003 program, includes $217.4 billion for highways, $51.5 billion for mass transit and about $6 billion for safety and research.

In issuing its veto threats, the White House said the bill should not exceed the $256 billion it recommended.

A vocal minority agreed that the bill was wasteful and would contribute to federal red ink, pointing to its 3,000 projects, carved out for specific members, that cost about $11 billion.

“The road to passage of this legislation is obviously paved with pork,” said the advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense, pointing to such spending as $3.2 million for a pedestrian walkway at Coney Island and $4 million for transit improvements at the minor league baseball Eastlake Stadium near Cleveland.

Others range from the late addition of more than $300 million for two bridges in Young’s home state of Alaska to $250,000 for outdoor facilities along the Music Heritage Trail in Josephine, VA, and $135,000 for historic preservation of a bus station in Eastman, TX.

Rep. Mike Pence, R-IN, said he voted against the bill because it was both “fiscally irresponsible and unfair to the people of Indiana.” That echoed a complaint of many that the formula for dividing the federal money among the states was inequitable.

Under current law, states are to get back at least 90.5 cents for every dollar they pay into the highway trust fund through the 18.4 cents per gallon in federal taxes that drivers pay at the pump. The Senate bill would raise that minimum guarantee to 95 cents by 2009.

The House bill lacks that provision but would reopen the legislation in two years if the 95-cent guarantee is not in place by then. The administration strongly opposes that step as another device to increase spending.

On April 2, the House defeated, 254-170, an amendment by Rep. Johnny Isakson, R-GA, which would have increased the number of projects included in determining the minimum for each state.

Because this bill has more special projects and projects of national regional significance that are not considered in the formula, Isakson said the minimum guarantee would apply to only 84 percent of federal grants, down from 93 percent previously,

“It’s unfortunate that we have a piece of legislation here that seems to divide the states,” said Rep. Bill Young, R-FL, whose state has long complained about its donor status.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, said every state would see its highway money climb under the six-year plan. “Look at your revenues, not at some arcane formula,” Oberstar said.

Among amendments approved during two days of debate was one offered by Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-AL, that would exempt motion picture and television production truck drivers, who often spend hours of idle time waiting for shootings to end, from new regulations requiring 10 hours of downtime between shifts.

Another, by Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-MN, would allow expansion of congested interstate roads to be financed for by user-fee tolls. Tolls from the new voluntary-use lanes would be dedicated to new highway capacity.