WASHINGTON – Republican lawmakers and the White House on Thursday were unable to come up with a dollar total for a much-delayed highway and transit bill touted as the biggest jobs and economic stimulus legislation Congress will consider this year.
But they did manage to resolve another crisis, persuading a colleague to abandon a legislative move that could have shut down much of the Transportation Department (search) starting from Saturday.
"Lots of numbers were discussed," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., after a meeting in his office that included House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and top GOP transportation and tax-writing lawmakers.
"The general agreement is that we are going to work with numbers in a bill that can be enacted into law," Frist said.
The White House, concerned about the growing budget deficit (search), has rejected both the six-year, $318 billion bill approved by the Senate earlier this year and the $275 billion bill passed by the House this month. The administration has put a $256 billion ceiling on the legislation and threatened a presidential veto of anything that exceeds that and worsens the deficit.
Complicating talks on the new bill, Sen. Kit Bond (search), R-Mo., chairman of the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on transportation, announced he was blocking a bill that would extend funding under the old 1998-2003 bill that is to expire on Friday. Bond was protesting what he said was Democratic stalling in naming House-Senate negotiators to work out a compromise on the new bill.
But late Thursday, Frist said that, after daylong discussions, Bond was dropping his objections, allowing the Senate to approve a two-month extension. The House passed the extension earlier this week, the third since the original bill first expired last September.
"Obviously there is a frustration that there have been objections from the other side," Frist said, adding that he would bring the issue of naming negotiators to a vote next week.
A failure to extend the old program would have stopped all federal highway money flowing to the states and resulted in the layoffs of thousands of Transportation Department employees.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota has tied the naming of conferees to getting assurances from the GOP leadership that Democrats will be full partners and the final product will be the result of a bipartisan consensus.
The White House has shown little give in its position that the bill should not go over $256 billion, up from $218 billion in the 1998-2003 program. But with hundreds of thousands of jobs and thousands of projects at stake, that has displeased many Republicans and normally pro-administration business groups.
On Thursday 20 Senate Republicans, led by Sens. Mike Crapo of Idaho and Jim Talent of Missouri, wrote Frist urging him to stand by the Senate's $318 billion figure. "Anything less would be a step backward that our nation cannot afford to take," they said.
The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (search) said Thursday that the White House proposal would not even keep pace with inflation, while Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America (search), said anything less than $318 billion "would slow job creation and jeopardize hundreds of congestion-relieving and road safety improvement projects."
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, said staff from his committee, the House Ways and Means Committee and the White House would meet over the weekend to discuss provisions in the House and Senate bills to increase money entering the Highway Trust Fund (search), the main source of revenue for federal highway spending.
The White House has questioned the legitimacy of some of those provisions, saying they would add to the deficit by merely shifting revenues from the general Treasury fund to the trust fund, which is principally financed by the 18.4 cents a gallon federal gas tax.
The Republican leaders are to meet again Tuesday to discuss, among other things, what sources of revenue the White House might find acceptable to boost total spending.
Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, insisted that the House bill was self-financing and criticized Republican leaders for being subservient to the White House. "They are just caught up in their own ideology," he said.