- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2004


President Bush and some Senate conservatives are balking at the price tag of a major highway bill, dimming prospects for legislation that normally is embraced by Congress because it brings money and jobs to every corner of America.

The Senate’s six-year, $318 billion highway and mass-transit bill, in its second week on the Senate floor, faces a Republican filibuster, White House opposition and possible linkage to an energy package that was rejected last year.

“I’m increasingly concerned we’re not going to get a highway bill this year,” said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, whose party, widely supportive of the legislation, has stood to the side while Republicans battle over the size of the bill and who gets the money.

The legislation would replace a six-year, $218 billion highway program that expired last year but has been temporarily extended until the end of this month. The administration has recommended a $256 billion package, while the Senate plan calls for about $318 billion: $255 billion for highways, $56.5 billion for mass transit and $6 billion for safety programs.

The House Transportation Committee wants $375 billion, but has proposed paying for the increase by raising the federal gas tax, now 18.4 cents a gallon. That idea has hit a dead end with House Republican leaders.

The bill will be “way below” the $375 billion figure, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said yesterday.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said he would support slimming the Senate bill to $290 billion, the actual money to be spent over the six-year period, but even that was too high for the president.

With little chance of quick resolution, the House plans to act this week to extend the current program another four months. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, suggested a one-year extension.

“I think that would probably be of benefit to the taxpayers of America, who are deeply concerned about our overspending,” Mr. McCain said.

Senate conservatives, led by Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, have effectively blocked movement on the bill, arguing that it is extravagant in an age of half-trillion-dollar deficits.

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