House Extends Roads Program

Still at odds with the White House over new highway spending (search), the House on Wednesday voted again to temporarily extend a roads program that should have expired nine months ago.

The 418-0 House vote extends to the end of July the six-year highway and mass transit act (search). The Senate is likely to agree to the extension, the fourth since September, before the latest deadline of June 30.

The vote came as House and Senate negotiators met to come up with a compromise bill intended to relieve road congesting, improve safety and provide tens of thousands of construction jobs.

Lawmakers have found common ground on minor issues, but have not come to terms with the White House on an overall spending level.

The White House has recommended spending $256 billion over the 2004-2009 period for highway and transit programs, compared with $218 billion in the last period.

Citing the need for fiscal restraint in an age of rising budget deficits, the White House has warned that President Bush would use his veto power for the first time if the bill presented to him goes much over that figure.

But the House and Senate, both controlled by the president's Republican allies, as well as the business community, contend that the White House number falls far short of what is needed to address the nation's deteriorating infrastructure.

The House approved a $284 billion bill and the Senate passed a $318 billion bill that is favored by many House members.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska (search), originally sought $375 billion and has publicly differed with the White House position. He pledged that the final bill "won't be anything less than what passed the House and I pray there will be more."

He added, "If we stand together shoulder to shoulder, I think that eventually we will prevail."

Without agreement on the overall number, the House and Senate will have difficulty settling on the formula that determines how federal funds are distributed among the states.

States now are guaranteed a return of 90.5 cents for every dollar they contribute to the highway trust fund, which holds the money accumulated from the 18.4 cents a gallon federal gas tax that pays for highway construction.

Larger, more populated states that get back less than they pay into the fund are unhappy and demanding a return rate of at least 95 percent. That will be difficult to achieve unless total spending is closer to the higher Senate-approved level.