House Begins Highway Bill Debate

House Republican leaders are caught between their own members, demanding more money for their states, and the White House, warning that the president may kill one of the biggest public works bills in years if the cost is not reduced.

Debate on the six-year, $275 billion highway and transit spending bill (search) was put off until Thursday after GOP leaders spent most of Wednesday listening to complaints from their rank and file. Gripes ranged from those saying their states weren't getting a fair shake to those opposed to expensive "pork" projects in the bill that would needlessly drive up the federal deficit.

The deficit hawks (search) were in line with the White House, which on Tuesday issued a statement that the House bill did not exhibit ample fiscal restraint and President Bush's senior advisers would recommend that he veto it.

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

Bush, who has proposed $256 billion, up from $218 billion in the last six-year period, has yet to veto a bill in his three years in office, and his stand on fiscal discipline comes on a popular bill aimed at easing traffic congestion, making roads safer and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs around the country.

"That's really not a preference," Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Wednesday of a veto showdown. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who arrived at the $275 billion figure in hopes of finding a number acceptable to the White House, "doesn't want to do that," she said.

The House is scheduled to finish work on the bill Friday, before it leaves for a two-week spring recess. With passage, House and Senate negotiators would have to work out a compromise that might pass White House muster.

The larger Senate bill answers some of the complaints of "donor" states, large, fast-growing states that contribute more to the highway trust fund (search) than they get back in federal grants, by promising that by 2009, the last year of the program, every state will get at least 95 cents back for every dollar they put into the trust fund.

The trust fund, derived from the 18.4 cents a gallon federal gas tax drivers pay at the pump, is the source of federal highway and transit funding.

The House bill does not have that provision, although it does have language saying the bill can be reopened in two years for renegotiation if Congress fails to enact a law guaranteeing the 95-cent return. The White House strongly opposes that provision, saying it would lead to more spending.

GOP aides said the House will consider an amendment that would help some states by expanding the number of projects included in the current minimum guarantee, which is 90.5 cents.

The House bill authorizes $217.4 billion for highways, $51.5 billion for public transit and about $6 billion for safety and research programs.

It contains about $11 billion for "high priority" projects requested by members. Fiscal watchdogs name some of these, for riverwalks, museums, trails and building reservations, as some of the "pork" members are taking home to their constituents.

But leaders of the House Transportation Committee, citing a Transportation Department study, say at least $375 billion is needed over the next six years just to maintain the nation's existing surface transportation.

The committee says that America wastes $70 billion every year due to traffic congestion and that one-third of the 42,000 highway fatalities in a year are due to substandard road conditions.