Bush dismisses new gas tax

WASHINGTON (AP) A week after a deadly bridge collapse in Minneapolis, President Bush today dismissed raising the federal gasoline tax to repair bridges at least until Congress changes how it spends highway money.

“The way it seems to have worked is that each member on that (Transportation) committee gets to set his or her own priorities first,” Bush said. “That’s not the right way to prioritize the people’s money. Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities.”

About $24 billion, or eight percent of the last $286 billion highway bill, was devoted to highway and bridge projects singled out by lawmakers. The balance is distributed through grants to states, which decide how it will be spent. Federal money accounts for about 45 percent of all infrastructure spending.

The Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee proposed a five cent increase in the 18.3 cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax to establish a new trust fund for repairing or replacing structurally deficient highway bridges.

More than 70,000 of the nation’s bridges are rated structurally deficient, including the bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River last Wednesday. The American Society of Civil Engineers says repairing them all would require spending at least $9.4 billion a year for 20 years. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., says his tax-increase proposal would raise about $25 billion over three years.

On terrorism, Bush said he is confident in the ability of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on militants at the Afghan border and cooperate with the U.S.

He said he expected Musharraf to take “swift action if there is actionable intelligence inside his country.” Bush refused to address whether the U.S. troops would go into Pakistan without permission from leaders there.

“We spend a lot of time with the leadership in Pakistan talking about what we will do with actionable intelligence,” Bush said. “Am I confident they (terrorists) will be brought to justice? My answer is, `Yes I am.’ ”

Musharraf, a key ally in Washington’s fight against terrorism, is under growing U.S. pressure. But the Pakistani leader is under considerable pressure at home too.

At home, Bush ruled out any bailout of homeowners hit with foreclosures in the form of direct assistance. But he said “enormous empathy” is in order for such people and indicated he was open to some federal help for people to refinance and keep their homes.

“The word bailout I’m not exactly sure what you mean. If you mean direct grants to homeowners, the answer would be no,” the president said.

The delinquency rate on home loans was almost five percent in the first three months of the year.

On the controversy of former NFL player Pat Tillman’s friendly fire death while serving in the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Bush said “the best way to honor that commitment of his is to find the truth.”

The president described Iran as “a destabilizing influence in the Middle East.”

Noting that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in Iran today, Bush said he hoped his message would be the same as the United States‘ that Tehran should halt the export of sophisticated explosive devices into Iraq or “there will be consequences.”

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