WASHINGTON – Three leading senators blamed election-year politics Tuesday for effectively blocking passage of a multiyear highway spending (search) bill and proposed that Congress accept a six-month extension of federal funding at current, less generous levels.
"It is unfortunate that we have been forced into this situation, but this extension is necessary to get us through the election cycle and beyond the politics that have ensnared the bill," said Sen. Jim Jeffords (search), the Vermont independent who leads the minority on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Jeffords was joined in introducing the six-month extension by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo (search)., who heads the panel's transportation subcommittee, and Senate Democratic Whip Harry Reid (search) of Nevada.
The existing six-year highway and mass transit spending bill, funded at $218 billion, ran out a year ago and has had to be prolonged by several short-term extensions because of wide differences over spending levels between Congress and the White House.
The White House, citing the need for fiscal restraint, has recommended $256 billion and threatened to veto any bill that would add to the deficit (search). The Senate approved a $318 billion package, said to be the minimum needed to create tens of thousands of construction jobs and make inroads in the nation's serious infrastructure problems.
The House originally came in at $284 billion, and recently the two chambers have coalesced around a figure of $284 billion in guaranteed contracts plus another $15 billion in contracts that have yet to be carried out.
Senate and House negotiators have been unable to come up with a formula at that level that would satisfy states who complain that that they pay more in federal gas taxes than they get back in federal highway aid.
"It is clear that a constrained funding level produces winners and losers, pitting state against state and region against region," Jeffords said.
Jeffords' proposal would extend highway funding for six months at a level that congressional appropriators reach for the budget year starting Oct. 1. The House is now debating the 2005 Transportation Department appropriations bill, which contains $34.6 billion for federal highway aid and $7 billion for transit programs.
The latest extension expires for highway programs on Friday and for other programs on Sept. 30.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Tuesday that GOP leaders have made no decision on the next extension. "I'm sure there will be a lot of discussions on that over the course of this week."
Will Hart, spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who heads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said a six-month extension was "not my boss's first choice." He said Inhofe prefers a shorter extension with the goal of getting a six-year bill done this year. "He believes that if people work hard it's doable," Hart said.