Congress Leaves Some Unfinished Business

Lawmakers, fighting among themselves and with the White House, have given up trying to pass highway (search) and welfare bills (search) this year that held the promise of tens of thousands of jobs.

The nearly $300 billion measure to fund highway and mass transit programs for the next six years "should have been the easiest piece of legislation for this Congress to pass," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. "Sadly, we are seeing today that we are not up to the challenge."

With no deal in place, the House voted on Thursday to extend the old, less-generous, six-year program for eight more months, through May. Minutes later, the House approved a six-month extension of the 1996 welfare law through March after prolonged efforts to write a new bill had failed.

The Senate followed suit later Thursday, avoiding a shutdown of both programs.

The extension was the sixth for the highway program, which was to have ended Sept. 30, 2003. It was the eighth extension for the welfare law, which was intended to run through September 2002.

The highway bill appealed to lawmakers from both parties because it offered jobs and projects in their states. The White House, however, sought to hold down spending.

The welfare measure highlighted policy differences between Democrats and Republicans about how best to help the needy.

Congressional leaders hoped to avoid a presidential veto on the highway bill by setting spending at $299 billion. That met resistance among senators, who had passed a $318 billion bill.

Other lawmakers said $299 billion was not enough to rectify what they say is the unfair division of highway money among the states.

The delay has frustrated state and local officials who see the highway bill as an enormous source of funds for construction projects and jobs.

Six governors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and George Pataki of New York, said in a letter to Congress this week that passing the bill was essential and that short-term extensions "have created uncertainty and difficulty in advancing projects."

"If they walk away from the conference table now, we could easily be looking at a substantially smaller bill when Congress returns" in 2005, said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

A survey by Horsley's group found that 33 states said short-term extensions mean $2.1 billion in project delays and the loss of more than 90,000 jobs.

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (search) said he still hoped to get a new bill before this session of Congress ends, or at least before the latest eight-month extension ends. Lawmakers are expected to leave before the Nov. 2 election, but Congress may be back in session in mid-November for a short time.

"We are on the cusp of a disaster in transportation if we don't act soon," said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

Democrats questioned why the White House would oppose more highway money when every extra $1 billion in spending creates more than 40,000 construction jobs. The White House has insisted that the bill, which includes thousands of projects sought by lawmakers for their districts, is too expensive at a time of rising budget deficits.

Jobs were also at the crux of the welfare bill.

The GOP-led Congress has tried for two years to rewrite the 1996 welfare law and put more emphasis on work and strong families. The law has been credited with helping reduce welfare rolls by 60 percent.

Democrats say that any increased work requirements for the 2 million families receiving welfare benefits must be accompanied by a significant boost in spending for child care.

A House bill passed in 2003 on a mainly party-line vote required states to have 70 percent of people on welfare working 40 hours a week by 2007, and included a strict definition of work.

It continued to limit people to five years of benefits over their lifetimes and included as much as $300 million per year for experiments promoting marriage.

Senate Republicans pulled their welfare bill from the full Senate in April after Democrats tried to link it to a raise in the minimum wage.