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Senators Approve Highway Bill Despite White House Veto Threat

Mon May 23, 2005 - National Edition
Jim Abrams - ASSOCIATED PRESS



WASHINGTON (AP) Congress and the White House are preparing for what could be arduous negotiations on long-overdue legislation to fund highway and transit projects and provide for safer and less crowded driving conditions.

The Republican-controlled Senate brushed aside a presidential veto threat May 17 and passed a $295 billion highway bill, arguing that massive spending on bigger and better roads was necessary to fight congestion and unsafe roadways.

The administration, while pressing Congress to pass a new highway bill, said the Senate version was too expensive in a time of war and debt and could result in the first veto of the Bush presidency.

The vote was 89-11 with a majority of Republicans joining Democrats in approving the six-year package that the administration said was $11 billion above what it would accept.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, described himself as one of the most conservative members of Congress but said he was at odds with the administration because “there are two areas where we need to spend money. One is national defense and the other is infrastructure.”

In addition to granting money to states to repair and build roads and bridges, the bill provides more than $50 billion for public transit, funds recreational road programs and promotes highway safety.

“This bill will have an impact on every city and every town and every state,” said Sen. James Jeffords, I-VT, the minority leader on the Environment Committee. “I urge President Bush to reconsider his veto threat against this legislation.”

Lawmakers also said that every $1 billion spent on highway construction creates 47,000 jobs.

The Senate vote was in some ways a repeat of last year, when the senators approved a bill well above what the White House deemed affordable. In the end no compromise was reached with Congress, and lawmakers have had to pass six temporary extensions of the old six-year act, which expired on Sept. 30, 2003.

The House in March passed a $284 billion bill, the maximum amount the White House says it will accept without a veto. The Senate, in adding $11 billion, said it had come up with new revenues for the highway trust fund — the principal source of money for federal highway grants to the states — without adding to the deficit.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan repeated the veto threat, saying the president was “very serious” about following a fiscally responsible budget.

Before the final vote, the Senate rejected, by 84-16, a proposed amendment by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL, that would have shrunk the bill back to $284 billion.

With 20 months gone since the last highway bill, there is growing pressure to come up with a compromise. The latest extension runs out on May 31.

“We’ve already lost one spring construction season in Michigan and we certainly don’t want to lose another one,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI.

“We are going to get a bill,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-AK, said.

Senate leaders sought to pass the highway bill before entering debate over the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominations, an issue that could seriously disrupt the legislative agenda.

There was no dispute over the need for a new highway program: Poor road conditions are a factor in one-third of the 42,000 traffic fatalities every year, and road congestion costs the nation billions in productivity and wasted fuel, studies indicate.

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials executive director John Horsley said states are delaying projects as the construction season gets into full swing. If an agreement can be reached by May 31, “state transportation departments and the traveling public will have reason to celebrate.”

On the other side, Erich Zimmermann, policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that by passing “a bloated bill that breaks the budget, the Senate has placed a big veto bulls eye on the back of the legislation.”

The legislation funds many relatively small programs — bike routes to schools, covered bridges, ferry terminals — as well as programs to promote fuel-efficient vehicles and authorize tolls to finance new interstate lanes.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, won approval of an amendment that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to update fuel economy testing to reflect real-life driving conditions. Gas mileage stickers on new cars now inflate true fuel economy performance by 10 percent to 30 percent.

The Senate also confirmed, in a vote the same day, a provision that would increase grants for safety programs to states that allow police to stop motorists who don’t wear seat belts even when there is no other traffic violation.

The House bill, unlike the Senate version, includes some 4,000 specific projects, worth some $12 billion, that were requested by lawmakers for their districts.

These projects, cited by fiscal conservatives as “pork,” will be one sticking point as House and Senate negotiators try to work out a compromise.

Another difference that must be resolved is the formula by which the federal government divides up money from the highway trust fund for the states. The trust fund comes from the 18.4 cents a gallon federal gas tax, and about half the states, mainly from fast-growing or heavily traveled areas, complain that they pay more into the fund than they get back from Washington.