By LAWRENCE M. O'ROURKE
May 17, 2005
Senate sponsors said the legislation would create thousands of jobs, cut congestion and commuting time and improve safety on the highways. But the White House said it was too expensive at a time of war and mounting federal deficits.
Beyond a presidential veto threat, the bill faces opposition from many in the Republican-controlled House who want to cut back overall surface transportation spending. The two chambers have been at odds for more than two years. Congress has six times passed temporary extensions of the old six-year highway bill that expired on Sept. 30, 2003.
The Senate approved its new try at five-year legislation by an 89-11 vote. Voting yes were 46 Republicans, 42 Democrats, and one independent. Voting no were nine Republicans and two Democrats.
With bipartisan enthusiasm, Senate leaders steered the highway legislation to approval before moving toward debate on the nomination of federal judges. The judges debate appears set to trigger action on the use of the filibuster to block approval.
Senators have predicted that if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., goes ahead with his plan to the end the filibuster on judicial nominations, the Senate could enter a period of disruption in which little legislation might pass.
Despite the large size of the highway bill and the overhanging White House veto threat, the debate was desultory.
Senators expressed agreement that the nation needs to move forward with new and repaired surface transportation projects with money from the fuel taxes in the highway trust fund.
Senators agreed that it was important to pass it now so that states can get projects underway in good weather.
Sen. James Imhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, urged the Senate to reject the president's veto threat.
Describing himself as one of the most conservative members of the Senate, Imhofe declared, "There are two areas where we need to spend money. One is national defense and the other is infrastructure."
Bush has threatened to veto any surface transportation bill that costs more than $284 billion. Just before voting for the $295 billion measure, the Senate voted 84-16 to reject a cut to $284 billion.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., a main sponsor, said the measure would increase federal aid to states for mass transit by 15 percent, would guarantee that each state get back at least 92 cents of every dollars its motorists contribute in gasoline taxes, and give greater priority than ever before to the environmental impact of road construction.
Sen. James Jeffords, the Vermont independent who managed the bill for the Democrats, said the bill would make it "easier and safer" for Americans to travel.
"This bill will have an impact on every city and every town and every state," Jeffords declared.
"It would be a mistake for the president to veto this bill," Jeffords declared.
But the veto may never come. Lawmakers said before the final bill reaches Bush's desk, it might be trimmed to stay within the president's spending limit.
At issue is $11 billion added by the Senate, primarily to make sure that no state get less this year than in previous years.
The House earlier this year passed a $284 billion bill. Negotiators from the Senate and House will now try to work out a common bill that both chambers can pass. House GOP leaders are expected to try to roll back the amount of the spending to a level that Bush finds acceptable.
The congressional negotiators will have to deal with 4,000 specific projects estimated to cost $12 billion that were written into the bill at the request of members of Congress for their districts. Critics, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., contend that many of these projects are "pork."
The negotiators will also have to deal with the Senate provision that would work to the benefit of so-called donor states, such as California, that put more into the highway trust fund through taxes than they take out through projects.
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