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Irresistible leverage

Mr. Kelly said the strongest language of an interlock directive could be softened in a Republican-controlled House.

“I’m not overly confident that if there’s a provision in the House bill there’s going to be a sanction approach” versus incentives for compliance, he said.

Yet the battle highlights the control the federal government can exert over the states in areas in which it disburses significant funds, including for infrastructure such as highways.

“That’s how they did .08,” said Mrs. Longwell, referring to the act that forced states to set the legal threshold for drunken driving at that level or forfeit funds.

All 50 states came to a drinking age of 21 through a similar mechanism, Mr. Van Doren said.

“When the drinking age was raised, it was the same thing, and Wisconsin was the last one to cave - big drinking tradition. And they finally did,” he said.

“You do have the right to turn down federal money. It’s just that no one chooses to do so.”