Highway bill earmarks eyed for storm relief

The top House Democrat said yesterday she would give up some specific transportation projects in her San Francisco district to help pay for Hurricane Katrina, but Majority Leader Tom DeLay said he doesn’t think cutting projects in his district is a good idea.

“The highway bill is an important part of building our economy,” Mr. DeLay said. “You cannot have a strong economy unless you have a strong infrastructure.”

Earmarks — the specific spending projects members of Congress write into bills, which critics call “pork” — have become a major focus of conservatives who want to cut spending to help pay for hurricane relief.

The highway bill contains about $24 billion in earmarks, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, put other lawmakers on the spot yesterday morning when she said she would give hers up.

“I certainly would give up earmarks to help the people in the region,” Mrs. Pelosi said, adding that her constituents would be “proud” to sacrifice.

But by the afternoon she had backtracked, saying she wouldn’t give up all of the $128.6 million going to her district. She said the $58.8 million slated to retrofit the Golden Gate Bridge to protect it from earthquakes is a safety issue too important to forgo.

“You have to judge what are your priorities. And the priority for us, I think, is clearly about we want to help the people of the region,” Mrs. Pelosi said, adding that Congress should first stop tax cuts planned for later this year.

Hurricane spending has become a dominant issue in Washington with lawmakers promising to spend whatever is necessary to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Some Republicans have called for deep cuts to pay for the spending, but they appear to be a minority.

Members of Congress have estimated Katrina’s costs to be between $150 billion and $225 billion, but Mr. DeLay said nobody knows for sure.

“Anybody throwing around this $200 billion figure, it would be nice for one of you all to ask them where they get it, because there is no such a figure,” he said. Mr. DeLay said that’s why Republicans have not presented a comprehensive plan to pay for Katrina.

“The point is that if you don’t know the figure, you don’t have a plan,” he said.

Mr. DeLay took heat from conservatives after telling reporters last week that the government should borrow money and add to the deficit to pay for Katrina. He specifically rejected cuts to the transportation bill, saying he hadn’t seen any that would work.

Asked if that meant the government was running at peak efficiency, Mr. DeLay said, “Yes, after 11 years of Republican majority, we’ve pared it down pretty good.”

But this week, he embraced cutting and said all options should be on the table.

“We are looking at every opportunity to save money and provide offsets for that that has already been authorized to be spent,” Mr. DeLay said. “And we are continuing to look, while we are having oversight of how things are being spent.”

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