WASHINGTON – House and Senate negotiators postponed a meeting on a giant highway and mass transit spending bill Thursday as the two sides struggled to unite around a spending figure that would exceed what the White House has said would force President Bush's first veto.
Congressional aides said negotiators were looking at a figure of around $295 billion over the next six years to fund surface transportation construction and safety programs. Eliminating some contracts that have not been formally enacted could lower that by about $10 billion. They said Democrats were being consulted on the possible agreement but the White House was not involved.
But House Transportation Committee aides said a planned afternoon meeting where the House would make a formal proposal to the Senate was put off because the House wasn't ready to make that offer.
A figure in the $285 billion to $295 billion range, if accepted by the Senate, would still be below the $318 billion favored by the Senate but would put Congress in a position of defying a possible presidential veto.
The White House has said that anything much over $256 billion would be unacceptable, citing the need for budgetary restraint in a period of mounting federal deficits.
House Republican leaders, including Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, have stressed that Congress must send the president a bill that he can sign, but they are also under pressure to take action on a bill that could produce tens of thousands of new jobs in an election year and is deemed crucial by states dealing with crumbling infrastructures.
Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, said it has been difficult for Hastert to reach an agreement because of the opposition of the White House.
"The White House has proved to be more resistant than any of the House or Senate leadership anticipated," he said.
The White House has warned that it would not accept any legislation that raises taxes or goes outside the Highway Trust Fund to pay for highway projects. The trust fund is financed by the 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax. Tax writers in both the House and the Senate have been scrambling to come up with ways to increase revenue coming into the trust fund to meet the White House conditions.
The previous six-year highway bill expired last September, and has had to be extended through several temporary measures to keep federal money flowing to the states while lawmakers try to reach a compromise. The latest extension expires at the end of this month.
Oberstar said that at the $295 billion level, they could still resolve some of the other major issues with the bill, such as how to most fairly divide federal grants to the states. But he said that if they have to go much below that level it would be better to extend the old act until next February when the new Congress convenes and try again next year.
The House in April approved a $284 billion bill, compared to the $318 billion bill passed earlier by the Senate. The previous highway bill was funded at $218 billion over six years.