Highway Bill Faces Hurdles After Passage Through Senate
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After four years of work, the Senate passed a $295 billion transportation spending bill today. It would pay for road-building and maintenance projects across the country, as well as public transportation and highway safety programs; the last highway bill expired in late 2003. But today's Senate action is far from the end of the story. Key differences with the House and a veto threat from the White House mean negotiations are just beginning. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.
ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:
When it comes to federal funding for highways, the big problem is always about which states get how much. Because of the math used to divvy up the dollars, some states end up getting back more of what they pay in gasoline taxes than other states. To swerve around this hazard, two senators, a Republican and a Democrat, came up with a way to boost every state's highway funds. That made a lot of senators happy, but it added more than $11 billion to the total cost of the bill, and that made the White House threaten to make this the first bill the president has ever vetoed.
Today, senators from both parties spoke on the floor urging the president to accept the increased funding. Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, says he knows some fiscal conservatives think it's too much spending.
Senator JAMES INHOFE (Republican, Oklahoma): I'll put my conservative credentials up against any one of the hundred members. In fact, I've been rated as number one, most conservative member of this body. And yet there are two areas where we need to spend money, and the one is in national defense; the other's in infrastructure.
SEABROOK: Inhofe and others said their bill increases the money states get without deepening the federal budget deficit by fixing tax abuses, among other things. But the White House calls that an accounting gimmick, and today, press secretary Scott McClellan said the Bush administration is serious about this one.
Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): We've made it very clear that the president's senior advisers would recommend a veto if that legislation exceeded the $283.9 billion that we have proposed.
SEABROOK: That veto threat looms as members of the House and Senate prepare to enter conference negotiations on the highway bill, and the differences between them are considerable. For example, the House leaders did not go past the president's funding level, but they did include about 4,000 earmarks for special projects--often derided as pork-barrel spending--worth about $12 billion. So negotiations are likely to be sticky.
At the same time, there are several incentives on lawmakers to speed up the process. For example, in northern areas of the US, road construction must begin early enough in the year to finish projects before winter storms come. Northern lawmakers are already complaining that that window is closing.
And there's another storm brewing, this one in the Senate itself. Every lawmaker is acutely aware that if Majority Leader Bill Frist leads Republicans to change Senate rules on filibustering judicial nominees, the so-called nuclear option, all work is likely to come to a grinding halt. Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords said that looming possibility will make negotiations even harder.
Senator JIM JEFFORDS (Independent, Vermont): I urge the president and the Republican leadership in the Senate to change the course of this storm. This bill and others like it are too important to get caught up in political hurricane on the horizon.
SEABROOK: At this point, lawmakers are still trying to get a final bill for the president's desk by May 31st, two weeks from today, when current highway funds expire. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
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