Senate Vote on Highway Bill Could Force Bush Veto

In a rare breach with the president, Senate Republicans joined Democrats in rejecting a spending ceiling set by the White House for a six-year highway and mass transit funding bill.

The Senate voted 76-22 Wednesday to defeat an attempt to rule that the $295 billion bill added to the federal deficit (search) and thus violated budget rules.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who initiated the budgetary point of order against the bill, said it was "quite simply, unequivocally, unquestionably, a budget buster" and it "seems a little bit inappropriate" to ignore the spending limits set by the president.

The White House on Wednesday repeated its warning that President Bush would be advised to veto any highway bill (search) that exceeded the $284 billion amount he had agreed to. The president "urges the Senate to prevent any further delay and send him a bill he can sign," said Scott Milburn, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. (search)

Gregg was joined by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., in backing the president, saying the bill can only pass smoothly if Congress stays within the spending parameters laid out in the budget passed last week and backed by the White House.

But 33 Republicans, citing the deteriorating state of the nation's roadways and the importance of the bill to generating jobs around the country, joined Democrats in supporting the $295 billion level.

"We have to have this money for safety, for economic development, for continued growth and the health of our economy," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who heads the transportation panel of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

"As a conservative Republican, I wholeheartedly support it," said the committee chairman, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.

The House in March went along with the White House in passing a $284 billion bill for highway, public transit and safety programs through fiscal 2009.

But there's been strong support in the Senate for a more robust bill, and the leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., on Monday introduced a package of revenue measures that they said would allow an extra $11 billion for infrastructure funding without increasing the federal deficit.

They said they accomplished that by shifting some funds that normally go into the general Treasury fund into the highway trust fund, the main source for highway projects, and taking other steps to increase revenues. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta (search) discounted the committee measures as "accounting gimmicks."

"The bill before the Senate ... is paid for in its entirety principally by cracking down on abuse and closing loopholes," Grassley said. He added that White House insistence on a fixed figure will only lead to a repeat of last year's gridlock, when Congress and the administration failed to come up with a compromise bill.

"Gridlock in conference won't resolve the gridlock on our nation's highways," he said.

The last six-year highway bill, funded at $218 billion, expired in September, 2003, and Congress has been unable to come up with a new bill. The White House last year also threatened to veto any bill that added to the federal deficit.

The Senate hopes to pass the bill this week so it can go to conference with the House to resolve differences. The latest temporary extension of the old bill, the sixth, runs out on May 31.

Highway and transit projects are funded from the highway trust fund, which is derived from the 18.4 cents federal tax that drivers pay at the pump.