Dems: Defy WH Veto Threat on Highway Bill

Congressional Democrats urged Republicans on Wednesday to defy a White House veto threat that for months has held up passage of a spending bill (search) for highways and mass transit.

"We don't need the president's signature," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., (search) as House and Senate negotiators met for the third time to come up with a figure for the six-year bill.

The White House has warned that President Bush would veto the first bill of his presidency if presented with either the Senate or the House-passed legislation. The administration says both measures would spend more than the government can afford at a time of rising budget deficits (search).

The Senate approved $318 billion in spending over six years and the House $284 billion. The White House said anything much over its ceiling of $256 billion would result in a veto.

Both bills passed by margins greater than the two-thirds needed to override a veto. "The White House may have to compromise, too," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

The Senate negotiators, at the last meeting two weeks ago, proposed that the House accept their figure. Many House members support that, citing the jobs a larger bill will bring to their districts and the urgent need to address overcrowded and deteriorating highways.

House GOP leaders have been less willing to buck the White House, and House negotiators on Wednesday said they need more time to come up with a number.

"The administration is part of the process and to get a law you need the president's signature," said the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif.

Thomas said it was incumbent on Congress to find a way to abide by the administration's principles that highway spending come only from the highway trust fund and not result in increased taxes or a higher deficit. The highway trust fund is derived from the 18.4 cents a gallon federal gas tax.

"I just worry about the House deferring too much to the White House," Boxer said.

The last six-year act, funded at $218 billion, expired in September. It has been extended several times to keep federal money flowing to the states. The latest extension will run out on July 31.

"I have a prediction that we're not going to do a highway bill," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat. "It's obvious the House can't come up with a number."