WASHINGTON – The House on Wednesday voted to keep current federal highway programs (search) running for another two months while Republican leaders try to overcome White House resistance to a new bill that would significantly increase federal aid for the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
"This is an embarrassing time for members of the Transportation Committee," said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, a committee member. "A bill that is supposed to improve traffic is now stuck in traffic."
The House voted 410-0 for the two-month extension of the 1998-2003 highway and transit spending bill, and the Senate is expected to follow suit before funding authority expires on Friday.
Without that extension, said Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., chairman of the Transportation subcommittee on highways, states would have to postpone new highway projects. And, four Transportation Department agencies — the Federal Highway Administration (search), Federal Transit Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (search) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration — would have to close and furlough workers.
This would be the third extension of the six-year, $218 billion program that first expired last September.
Since then, the Transportation Committee unsuccessfully pushed a $375 billion bill for the 2004-2009 period and the Senate passed a $318 billion bill. The House at the beginning of this month overwhelmingly passed a $275 billion bill.
But even that slimmed-down version failed to pass muster with the White House, which has cited the need for fiscal discipline in a period of mounting budget deficits (search) and has threatened a presidential veto of any legislation that exceeds $256 billion. President Bush has yet to veto a bill since taking office.
Republican leaders, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., are to meet with White House officials Thursday in an effort to find agreement on a spending level.
Once that agreement is reached, negotiators would still have to work out sensitive questions of how federal funding is distributed among the states.
Federal highway funds are derived from the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon that drivers pay at the gas pump. States that pay more into the Federal Highway Trust Fund (search) than they get back have long complained about the distribution formula. There has also been criticism of the growing number of "earmarks" - more than 3,000 in the House bill - that direct projects to individual lawmakers' districts and are generally not covered by the formula.
Democrats, who strongly support highway spending, were miffed at being left out of the negotiations. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota has held out the possibility of blocking extension until he is assured of Democratic participation.
"They're locking us out once again, just as they did on Medicare, just as they've done with other issues in the past, and that's troubling," he said Tuesday.
"We have stood shoulder to shoulder, meeting to meeting, kneecap to kneecap" with Republicans in crafting the bill, said Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, and it "doesn't make any sense" that Democrats are now being excluded.
He added that swift passage of a new highway bill would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and invigorate the national economy. "George Bush would be on his way to re-election."