Wednesday, April 21, 2004

It is still unclear how Republicans in the White House and on Capitol Hill will solve the intra-party impasse over the size of the highway and transit construction bill. Three weeks ago, the House passed $275 billion in transportation funding by a vote of 357-65. The Senate package is $318 billion. The White House says both are too costly and has threatened to veto anything higher than $256 billion. It is important to solve these differences and pass the legislation as soon as possible.

Not helping matters is incorrigible Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who is insisting on the unusual ploy of holding a pre-conference before agreeing to conferees. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, in an effort to get the legislation done, is sticking to regular legislative order of going to conference to hammer out a deal. But time is running out, as the deadline for an agreement is April 30 before an extension will have to be filed — which Mr. Daschle has said he will oppose. Obviously there can be no resolution of the House and Senate bills without conferees, which isn’t happening because the Democratic leader is holding the bill hostage in an attempt to get even more spending. Until oil prices increased in recent weeks, the Senate was looking at an eight-cent gasoline tax increase, but thankfully that has been dropped.

What is getting lost in the strategic shuffle is that the projects in the various forms of the legislation are important to the economy. The infrastructure in this country is crumbling, which has a detrimental effect on national efficiency. Money spent on roads, bridges and other infrastructure helps the private sector get business done. Building new roads also legitimately creates jobs. While there no doubt is some pork in the bills, it is not a boondoggle to authorize spending for highway construction that is needed, and the million to 1.5 million jobs that will result further add to the health of the economy. No matter what size the bill ends up, it would be both good for the country and Republican political prospects to have those jobs come on line promptly.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has been blaming Bush administration spending habits for expanding the deficit. A presidential veto of a bloated bill or passage of Mr. Bush’s more prudent numbers would be a useful antidote to Mr. Kerry’s charges. If a bloated bill gets to the president’s desk, forcing a veto, Congress most likely will be able to override it. Neither the president nor Congress looks particularly good during the tit-for-tat. The sooner Republicans in Congress and the White House settle on lower numbers the better for Republicans and the worse for Mr. Daschle’s obstructionism.

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