President Bush Signs $286.4 Billion Transit Bill

President Bush travels to Aurora, Ill., to sign the $286.4 billion transportation bill. The bill is two years overdue and includes about 6,000 pet projects for lawmakers' home districts.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

President Bush interrupts his vacation again today for another bill-signing ceremony. This time, he'll be traveling to Aurora, Illinois, to sign the highway bill. Aurora is the birthplace of House Speaker Dennis Hastert who did a lot of the heavy lifting to pass the measure. The bill is two years overdue, billions of dollars richer than the president wanted and loaded with the kind of special projects legislators love to bring home to constituents. NPR White House correspondent David Greene joins us now to talk about the bill.

David, didn't the president say that he would veto this bill if it went over his limit for new transportation spending?

DAVID GREENE reporting:

He sure did, and he was pretty adamant about it. The president spoke about the need to be firm and to enforce spending restraint on lawmakers, and the White House said that he would veto anything above $284 billion, and they were pretty clear. And, well, the legislation came in at about $2 billion over that, and here he is in Illinois today, the presidential seal will be on the podium and he'll be signing the legislation.

WERTHEIMER: So what changed his mind?

GREENE: His aides will tell you that, sure, this number seemed firm and he went a little past it, but they like to focus on how much they drew Congress in. They say that lawmakers wanted something that was even larger and more bloated. They wanted a bill that was upwards of $400 billion, and so they were able to bring lawmakers way, way, way down. And so they like to say, `Look, we were aiming for restraint. We got it. Who cares about, you know, a couple of billion dollars?'

WERTHEIMER: Here or there.

GREENE: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: I guess, no one really opposes the idea of roads and bridges, but there are some projects in this bill that have really drastically large dollar signs and question marks.

GREENE: There really are, and it seems like nothing like a transportation bill gets lawmakers salivating. There's nothing like being able to go home, back to your constituents and stand there at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new highway or a new bridge. And they can talk about these projects at their next campaign and talk about how they were able to alleviate traffic. There's criticism about a lot of the projects in this bill. There's no question about it. A lot of it, though, has focused on Don Young. He's the Alaska Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee. His state, which doesn't have that many people, got millions and millions of dollars including a few hundred million for a new bridge outside Anchorage and, in fact, it's going to be called Don Young's Way.

WERTHEIMER: How about Speaker Hastert? What's in this bill for his Aurora, Illinois, district?

GREENE: Well, quite a bit. He helped guide the bill through the House and finally get its passage, and so there was no doubt that he was going to get in the mix, and there are about a dozen or so projects in Aurora and the surrounding areas outside Chicago that he's going to be able to crow about. There are even a few parking decks in his district that are getting built for a few million dollars each of taxpayer money. So he's getting his due.

WERTHEIMER: I assume that the folks in Aurora think that's a good thing.

GREENE: They do. Every community that they can get this money for these projects seems to like it. There was a quote in the Chicago Tribune recently from the chairwoman of the board in Kane County. That's where the president's going to be today. And she was quoted as saying, "Clearly in the United States, Illinois is the single largest transportation hub." I'm sure there are a lot of places around the country that may differ with her.

WERTHEIMER: NPR White House correspondent David Greene with the president.

David, thank you.

GREENE: My pleasure.

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