- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Senate yesterday passed its $295 billion highway bill and set up a battle with the House, which passed a leaner $284 billion version, and with President Bush, who has vowed to veto the bill if it exceeds his proposal.

The Senate voted 89-11 in favor of the legislation, more than enough support to overcome any presidential veto.

Senators pleaded with Mr. Bush to accept the $11.2 billion increase over the budget that passed both houses last month.

“That funding makes all the difference in this bill; it leveled the playing field for some states that felt they were being treated unfairly by the funding formulas,” said Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent. “There are no differences between the House and Senate versions that cannot be overcome.”

Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the increase is moderate compared with the $318 billion that the Senate approved last year.

“All this bill does is increase contracting authority, which is not spending. It does not affect the deficit at all,” he said.

The White House expressed displeasure with the amount of funding in the Senate bill.

“We have made it very clear, and we reiterated here today, that the president’s senior adviser would recommend a veto if that legislation exceeded the $283.9 billion that we have proposed,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

Mr. Bush has not vetoed a bill, despite several promises to do so, during almost 4 years in office.

Asked whether the president could withstand a veto override, Mr. McClellan said Mr. Bush has not changed his mind about highway funding.

The nation’s infrastructure funding has not been increased since 1999, operating instead under six continuing resolutions, the most recent of which expires May 31.

Mr. Inhofe, expecting a quick House-Senate conference negotiation, said he hopes to complete the bill in a week.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, whose party has threatened to halt Senate business if Republicans change Senate filibuster rules for judicial nominees, said the highway bill would be rendered harmless.

The Senate will begin debating judicial nominees today, and House members wonder whether Mr. Reid can keep that promise.

“We are really concerned that with all the compromises and work done on the bill that it will get caught in a firestorm with the Senate,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, California Republican and House Appropriations Committee chairman.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, said he is not concerned about the May 31 deadline.

“Haven’t you noticed that continuing resolutions don’t mean much when it comes to highway bills?” he said. “I mean, we’ve had five or six already, so I’ll worry about it when we get to conference.”

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