Highway Bill Under Cloud of Presidential Veto

The House is taking up a massive highway and transit spending bill that promises to bring jobs and better roads across the country but is clouded by White House assertions that it will result in a presidential veto.

The House on Wednesday begins debate on the six-year $275 billion bill, a 900-page package that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search), R-Ill., worked hard to trim to make it acceptable to the administration fiscal hawks that have said it is too expensive. A final vote is expected on Thursday.

But on Tuesday, the administration said the House bill was still too high-priced, and "if this legislation were presented to the president in its current form, his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill."

The White House has also levied a veto threat on a $318 billion bill the Senate approved in February.

The White House has recommended a $256 billion package, up from $218 billion in the last six-year plan, and says it will not accept any bill that is paid for by raising taxes, through bonding, or by raiding the general Treasury fund.

The administration statement said the House bill would actually amount to $284 billion if contracts going beyond the six years are considered.

Hastert arrived at the $275 billion figure after often-contentious negotiations with the White House and against the background of members of his own party demanding more spending for new highway projects and to repair crumbling roads and bridges in their districts.

The House Transportation Committee (search) insisted on a $375 billion, which they said was the amount required to make real improvements in the nation's infrastructure. The committee's proposal to pay for that increase by raising the federal gas tax was rejected by the administration.

Federal infrastructure grants come from the highway trust fund (search), which is derived from the 18.4 cent-a-gallon in federal tax that drivers pay at the pump.

Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery, said, "The speaker is going to work hard to make sure this job-creating bill is not vetoed."

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the GOP-controlled Congress had yet to send a bill to President Bush it knows will be vetoed and "the speaker is not interested in a bill being vetoed by the president." Bush has not vetoed a bill in his three years in office.

The White House also raised the veto threat against a provision in the House bill that would bar states from receiving most of their highway funds after Sept. 30, 2005, in effect reopening the bill for another round of negotiations, if Congress fails to enact a law that guarantees equity in highway spending.

Some fast-growing or highly populated "donor" states have long complained that they pay more into the highway trust fund than they get back in federal grants. They have been pressing for greater return on their dollar.

The Senate bill would guarantee that by 2009, the last year of the bill, every state gets at least 95 cents back for every dollar it sends to Washington, and DeLay, representing a major "donor" state, has pushed hard on the issue.

But the House Transportation Committee said reaching that level of equity would not be possible with a $275 billion bill.

The committee argued that their $375 billion bill was required if the nation was to make any progress in reversing the deterioration of the nation's infrastructure and that it would sustain 1.7 million new jobs over the next six years.

The White House also objected to other provisions in the House bill, saying it does not reward states for taking a more aggressive stand against non-safety belt users and cuts the administration proposal to build park roads to reduce the maintenance backlog in national parks.

The $275 billion House bill includes about $225 billion for highway programs and $51 billion for transit programs.