WASHINGTON – On a collision course with the White House, the House on Thursday headed toward approval of a bill that would finance $275 billion worth of roads, bridges and mass transit systems.
An administration veto threat over the price tag drew little attention on the House floor. Republicans and Democrats alike hailed the legislation as crucial for making the nation's roads safer and less congested and for stimulating the economic recovery with hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
"We are a nation stuck in traffic," said Rep. Don Young (search), R-Alaska, chairman of the transportation committee, who unsuccessfully campaigned for a much larger bill of $375 billion.
The bill would pour billions of dollars into every state for highway building over the next six years while setting aside some $11 billion for member-requested projects that fiscal critics categorize as pork.
They mention $3 million for a riverwalk project in Montgomery, Ala.; $750,000 to enhance directional markers in Monroe County, Pa.; $1.5 million for horse trails in Virginia; and $5 million for a parking garage in Bozeman, Mont.
The House is expected to approve its bill Friday, the last day before it departs on a two-week recess. That would set up negotiations with the Senate, which in February passed a $318 billion version.
The administration has issued veto threats against both bills, saying they are too costly in an age of mounting budget deficits and they violate principles against raising taxes or shifting money from the general Treasury fund to the highway trust fund that finances federal infrastructure grants.
The White House has proposed $256 billion, up from $218 billion in the last six-year period, and has threatened to veto the House version.
The current temporary extension of that last period expires at the end of April, and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (search) said Thursday that he would not agree to another extension.
He said it's been six months since the 1998-2003 highway bill expired, and "these unnecessary delays have cost our nation roughly 100,000 jobs."
At a time when 9 million Americans are out of work, Daschle said, "any more delays are unconscionable."
Debate on the House bill was to have begun Wednesday, but was postponed as rank-and-file members at a GOP meeting bombarded their leaders with complaints from both sides: that the bill was wasteful and that it failed to equitably divide federal largess among the states.
The larger Senate bill answers some of the complaints of "donor" states, large, fast-growing states that contribute more to the highway trust fund 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 it puts 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.
But Young and others on the House Transportation Committee (search), 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.
"Why some bean counters think that we can do this bill on the cheap when the infrastructure needs of our country are crying out for repairs is beyond me," said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, a committee member.
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.
The House bill authorizes $217.4 billion for highways, $51.5 billion for public transit and about $6 billion for safety and research programs.