WASHINGTON – The Republican-controlled Senate (search) brushed aside a presidential veto threat Tuesday and passed a $295 billion highway bill, arguing that massive spending on bigger and better roads was necessary to fight congestion and unsafe roadways.
The administration, while pressing Congress (search) to pass a new highway bill, said the Senate version was too expensive in a time of war, and debt and could result in the first veto of the Bush presidency.
The vote was 89-11 with a majority of Republicans joining Democrats in approving the six-year package that the administration said was $11 billion above what it would accept.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee (search), described himself as one of the most conservative members of Congress but said he was at odds with the administration because "there are two areas where we need to spend money. One is national defense and the other is infrastructure."
The Senate now must work out its differences with the House-passed bill, which in addition to approving less money specifies thousands of specific projects requested by lawmakers, from bike paths to sidewalks to parking lots. Almost all of the Senate money is divided among the states by a complicated formula.
In addition to granting money to states to repair and build roads and bridges, the bill would provide more than $50 billion for public transit, fund recreational road programs and promote highway safety.
"This bill will have an impact on every city and every town and every state." said Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., the minority leader on the Environment Committee. "I urge President Bush to reconsider his veto threat against this legislation."
The Senate vote was in some ways a repeat of last year, when the senators approved a bill well above what the White House deemed affordable. In the end no compromise was reached with Congress, and lawmakers have had to pass six temporary extensions of the old 6-year act, which expired on Sept. 30, 2003.
The House in March passed a $284 billion bill, the maximum amount the White House says it will accept without a veto. The Senate, in adding $11 billion, said it came up with new revenues for the highway trust fund — the principal source of money for federal highway grants to the states — without adding to the deficit.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan repeated the veto threat Tuesday, saying the president was "very serious" about following a fiscally responsible budget.
Before the final vote, the Senate rejected, by 84-16, an amendment proposed by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., that would have shrunk the bill back to $284 billion.
With 20 months gone since the last highway bill, there is growing pressure to come up with a compromise. The latest extension runs out May 31.
"We've already lost one spring construction season in Michigan and we certainly don't want to lose another one," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
"We are going to get a bill," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska.
Senate leaders sought to pass the highway bill before entering debate over the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominations, an issue that could disrupt the legislative agenda.
There was no dispute over the need for a new highway program: Poor road conditions are a factor in one-third of the 42,000 traffic fatalities every year, and road congestion costs the nation billions in lost productivity and wasted fuel, studies indicate.
The legislation funds many relatively small programs — bike routes to schools, covered bridges, ferry terminals — as well as programs to promote fuel-efficient vehicles and authorize tolls to finance new interstate lanes.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., won voice vote approval of an amendment that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to update fuel economy testing to reflect real-life driving conditions. Gas mileage stickers on new cars now inflate true fuel economy performance by 10 percent to 30 percent.
The Senate also adopted, 86-14, a provision that would increase grants for safety programs to states that allow police to stop motorists who don't wear seat belts even when there is no other traffic violation.
The House bill, unlike the Senate version, includes some 4,000 specific projects, worth some $12 billion, that were requested by lawmakers for their districts.These projects, cited by fiscal conservatives as "pork," will be one sticking point as House and Senate negotiators try to work out a compromise.
Another difference is the formula by which the federal government divides up highway trust fund money for the states. The trust fund comes from the 18.4 cents a gallon federal gas tax, and about half the states, mainly from fast-growing or heavily traveled areas, complain that they pay more into the fund than they get back.
Of the 11 senators who voted against the bill, two are Wisconsin Democrats, Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold. They were joined by Republicans Jon Kyl and John McCain of Arizona, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Judd Gregg and John Sununu of New Hampshire, Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.