WASHINGTON – President Bush and some Senate conservatives are balking at the price tag of a major highway bill, dimming prospects for legislation that normally is embraced by Congress because it brings money and jobs to every corner of America.
The Senate's six-year, $318 billion highway and mass transit bill (search), in its second week on the Senate floor, faces a Republican filibuster and White House opposition over its cost.
"I'm increasingly concerned we're not going to get a highway bill this year," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (search), whose party, widely supportive of the legislation, has stood aside while Republicans battle over the size of the bill and who gets the money.
The legislation would replace a six-year, $218 billion highway program that expired last year but has been temporarily extended until the end of this month. The administration, citing tough financial times, has recommended a $256 billion package, while the Senate plan calls for about $318 billion: $255 billion for highways, $56.5 billion for mass transit and $6 billion for safety programs.
The House Transportation Committee (search) wants $375 billion, but has proposed paying for the increase by raising the federal tax, now 18.4 cents a gallon, that drivers pay at the gas pump. That idea has hit a dead end with House GOP leaders. The House bill will be "way below" the $375 billion figure, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who met with the president Monday evening, said he would support slimming the Senate bill to $290 billion, the actual money to be spent over the six-year period, but even that was too high for the president. The Senate bill is substantially higher than the president wants, "and he made that pretty clear," Frist said.
With little chance of quick resolution, the House plans to act this week to extend the current program another four months. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested a one-year extension. "I think that would probably be of benefit to the taxpayers of America who are deeply concerned about our overspending."
One other possible complication for the highway bill was removed Tuesday when Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Energy Committee, said he would try not to attach to the bill a revised version of a major energy bill that failed to get through the Senate last year.
Frist scheduled a Thursday vote, with 60 senators needed to overcome the Republican-led filibuster and advance the bill toward passage.
Senate conservatives, led by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., have effectively blocked movement on the bill, arguing that it is extravagant in an age of half-trillion-dollar deficits and, on a somewhat different tack, that it shortchanges their home states.
Gregg said the Senate bill is being paid for through illusory accounting mechanisms and warned that if it passed in its current form, "we will be dramatically adding to the deficit."
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said it was both too expensive and unfair to his state. "We will be darned if we are willing to continue to send our money to Washington to be spent by other states when we have such large needs here."
Federal highway construction money is supposed to come entirely from the highway trust fund, paid for by the gasoline tax. How that money is divided up among the states is a constant source of contention.
In the past, some states received as little as 70 cents for every dollar they paid into the fund. This time, said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, every state will get back at least 95 cents by the end of the program in 2009.
But McCain, an opponent of the bill, said the number of donor states -- those that pay more than they get back -- will rise from the current 28 to 31. One of the new donor states will be Gregg's New Hampshire.
"The people of California are being asked to send almost $2 billion to Washington, D.C., so that it can be redistributed through some arcane funding scheme to the lucky 19 states that would get back more than they put in," McCain said.
The two Republican managers of the bill, Inhofe and Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., are both fiscal conservatives who argue it would not add to the deficit.
They defended the Senate Finance Committee, which came up with an additional $35 billion through various budgetary maneuvers that increase revenues for the trust fund.
The administration has threatened a veto of any bill that increases taxes or takes money from the general Treasury fund, but Inhofe said it was a "moral issue" that all gas tax money go into highway building. The Finance Committee, he said, was acting to "retrieve a previous raid on the highway trust fund" by the general fund.
Supporters argued that the bill would add anywhere from 1 million to 2 million jobs to the jobless economic recovery, help reduce the $70 billion annual cost to the nation from highway congestion and reduce the number of highway deaths.
"There are white crosses all along the roads" in Missouri, Bond said. "We kill people because our roads are inadequate."