- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

The Senate yesterday approved a $318 billion transportation bill, defying President Bush’s threat that he will veto the measure unless its price tag is reduced.

The fight over the Senate measure and its $375 billion House counterpart — which reauthorizes highway, mass transit and safety programs for six years — is the first real test of Mr. Bush’s pledge for fiscal restraint this year.

The Senate approved the bill 76-21 last night, with 41 Democrats, 34 Republicans and one independent voting “yes,” and four Democrats and 17 Republicans voting “no.”

“This bill that we passed is a good bill … we will get a lot more miles literally for the dollar than we ever have before,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

The main hurdle was cleared yesterday morning, when senators voted 86-11 to limit debate on the bill and force an eventual vote.

“When does [spending] stop? When does the Republican Party find its soul?” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, of the Senate’s support for the expensive bill. “The only good news is that President Bush is showing signs he may fight this election-year pork fest.”

The Bush administration wants the transportation bill to be $256 billion, and told Senate leaders in a statement of administration policy Wednesday that their bill faces a veto because its “spending levels are too high” and it violates key principles.

The administration said any transportation bill must not raise taxes, must not pay for its spending through bonds or “other mechanisms that conceal the true cost,” and must use money from the Highway Trust Fund rather than contribute to the deficit by using money from the general fund.

“With passage of an excessive $318 billion highway funding bill, the Senate today missed an important opportunity to rein in spending,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said last night in a statement.

He reiterated the administration’s threat that Mr. Bush will veto any bill that is too expensive and included unacceptable funding mechanisms. In more than three years as president, Mr. Bush has never vetoed a bill.

The House on Wednesday passed a four-month extension of current transportation law, because the overall, $375 billion measure crafted by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, has been stalled.

“The administration is doing the right thing,” said Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican.

The Senate bill doesn’t contain earmarks for any specific projects for senators, but those are likely to be added when the bill is being melded with the House version, said Ronald Utt, senior research fellow at Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Inhofe and other supporters insist that the bill is being paid for by the Highway Trust Fund and doesn’t contribute to the deficit. Supporters also say it creates jobs.

“A bill like this is an excellent opportunity for people to go to work,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.

But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, said the bill “is not paid for and will increase the deficit.”

Mr. McCain raised a point of order against the bill, saying it is $35 billion over the budget limit set by Congress last year. His motion was rejected when the Senate voted, 72-24, to waive the budget act. And Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, tried to hold the bill to $256 billion, but his proposal also was defeated, on a 78-20 vote.

To help pay for the cost, the Senate Finance Committee includes in the bill various mechanisms to generate revenue, such as closing tax loopholes.

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