WASHINGTON – States would get an additional $100 billion over the next six years to build roads, repair bridges and improve public transit under a Senate-passed bill that the White House says is extravagant in an age of record deficits.
The Senate voted 76-21 to approve the $318 billion surface transportation bill, a winning margin that would be enough to override a threatened presidential veto.
"If that legislation comes to his desk, the president will veto it," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Friday. He said it was an "important first test" of Congress' willingness to restrain spending.
The current six-year highway spending bill (search), which expires at the end of this month, provided $218 billion.
"This bill will make a difference in the life of every American by making it easier and safer to get from place to place," said Sen. Jim Jeffords (search), I-Vt.
The legislation now moves to the House, where lawmakers are deeply divided over the measure. Some say even the Senate bill is inadequate to improve the nation's congested and unsafe roads; others agree with the president that Congress must begin to show fiscal discipline.
The White House has recommended $256 billion over the six years and says the president will be advised to veto any bill that goes beyond that or uses tax increases or deficit spending to finance it.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., predicted the legislation would be one of the most important Congress considers this year, citing what he said were conservative estimates that it would create 1.6 million jobs over its six-year lifetime.
He expressed hope that a compromise would be reached with the House and the White House, and said he would support a figure around $290 billion, which is the actual ceiling on spending over the six years.
The $318 billion — about $255 billion for highways, $56 billion for mass transit and $7 billion for safety programs — is the amount the government can contract over the period, which is slightly higher than the spending limit.
The House Transportation Committee has backed a $375 billion figure, saying anything less would do little more than maintain the current level of the nation's deteriorating infrastructure. But the committee's suggestion that the federal gas tax be raised to pay for the increase has been rebuffed by the White House and House GOP leaders.
The House this week voted to extend the current highway program another four months, anticipating that reaching a consensus on the issue will take time.
Highway spending comes from the highway trust fund (search), which is financed by the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon.
The Senate bill also has a complex formula, based on contributions to the trust fund, population growth and highway mileage, to determine how much each state will get from the federal government. Each state is to get from 10 percent to 46 percent more than during the last six-year period, and by 2009, every state is promised that it will get at least 95 cents back for every dollar it puts into the trust fund.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, a chief sponsor, said the formula was "remarkably fair," but it met strong opposition from senators from some states that contribute more than they receive.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the formula was "bizarre and Byzantine," and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, tried unsuccessfully to shift $9 billion in unallocated money to fast growth states such as Texas, California and Florida.
The Senate also rejected, 78-20, an amendment by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., which would have reduced the Senate spending to $256 billion, the amount sought by the White House.
Supporters of full funding said 35 percent of the 42,000 people killed annually in vehicle crashes die because of road conditions. They also said congestion costs the average peak-hour driver $1,160 a year and the nation $67 billion in wasted fuel and lost productivity.
The Senate accepted an amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., that would reduce federal funding for those 14 states that don't have laws banning open containers of alcohol in moving vehicles. Dorgan lost his mother to a drunken driver.
The Senate bill is S. 1072.