By Christopher Lee
The Senate voted 76 to 21 Thursday (Feb. 12) to approve a
$318 billion transportation bill, but the legislation faces
White House opposition over its price tag, and it differs
from a costlier bill pending in the House.
The six-year measure would fund highways, bridges, road improvements,
mass transit and safety programs. It is the successor to a
$218 billion transportation bill passed in 1998 that expired
last year but has been extended through the end of this month.
The local transportation projects the bill would finance
are politically popular with lawmakers and their constituents.
But the cost cannot be covered completely by the federal Highway
Trust Fund, which is supported by the gasoline tax. The price
tag has alarmed fiscal conservatives at a time of rising budget
deficits and calls from President Bush to rein in spending.
After losing an 86 to 11 vote that ended their filibuster
of the bill early yesterday, GOP conservatives tangled with
other Republicans who were willing to accept higher spending
in return for the 1.6 million jobs they say the bill will
"Never get between a congressman and asphalt, because
you will always get run over," said Sen. Rick Santorum
(R-Pa.), who opposed the bill. "A bunch of us are about
to be roadkill. . . . The bottom line is, we're spending a
ton of money and we're not paying for it."
Supporters said the bill had to be large to address crumbling
bridges and traffic-clogged roads that burden the economy
and, by extension, dampen tax revenues.
"America will rescue us from this fiscal situation if
America can get to work in the morning," said Sen. James
M. Talent (R-Mo.).
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called the bill
"one of the most important" on Congress's agenda
this year. "It is an essential element in moving our
economy forward," he said.
Democrats, who generally favored the bill, needed little
convincing. "Our highways, our rail and our interstate
system, in particular, are the foundation for jobs and economic
growth," said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.).
"This is a jobs bill," said Sen. James M. Jeffords
(I-Vt.), the ranking minority member on the Environment and
Public Works Committee. "There's no other jobs bill that
can do so much."
The Senate Finance Committee worked out budgetary maneuvers
that lawmakers said would increase the money going into the
Highway Trust Fund without raising the gasoline tax or inflating
the deficit. The moves, however, would reduce tax revenue
that now finances other government activities.
The administration says the bill is still too expensive.
It wants spending levels to match the revenue available in
the Highway Trust Fund, which is fed by a federal tax of 18.4
cents a gallon on gasoline.
Bush has requested a $256 billion, six-year transportation
bill, which represents a 21 percent increase over the previous
measure. His advisers said this week they would recommend
that he veto the Senate bill.
"This is the first test for the Congress when it comes
to spending restraint," White House spokesman Scott McClellan
said yesterday. "We urge Congress to hold the line on
spending." The House, which voted Wednesday to extend
the existing transportation program through June, is considering
a bigger bill than the one passed by the Senate. The House
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is expected to
take up a $370 billion measure on Feb. 25, said Steve Hansen,
a committee spokesman.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the panel's chairman, has proposed
an increase of 8 cents a gallon in the federal gasoline tax
over several years to pay for it. Under his proposal, the
tax would rise about a nickel the first year and then be adjusted
annually for inflation, reaching about 26.4 cents a gallon
by 2009. House conservatives ardently oppose increasing the
tax, as does Bush.
The fuel tax was last increased in 1993, Hansen said, and
Young's goal is merely to compensate for inflation since then.
The Senate version offers substantial increases in transportation
funding for the Washington region. Maryland would get $3.72
billion over six years, a 40 percent increase over the previous
legislation, according to the office of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski
(D-Md.). The average increase for all 50 states is 36 percent.
Virginia's funding would increase $1.7 billion, or nearly
40 percent, to $5.96 billion, said a spokesman for Sen. John
W. Warner (R-Va.). Warner sponsored a provision in the bill
that would send $958 million to states to help address pollution
from storm-water runoff, money he said would help the Chesapeake
Bay and area beaches.
The Senate bill also authorizes $2 billion a year for Amtrak
over the next six years, a provision opposed by the White
House. The administration wants $900 million for Amtrak next
year, and has called for the money-losing rail system to shift
more costs to states in which it provides services.