Rising federal deficit opens rift among
Republicans on how much to spend on transportation and energy.
By Gail Russell Chaddock
The Christian Science Monitor
WASHINGTON With an election year and a record $521
billion budget deficit looming, President Bush is moving toward
a first in his presidency use of a veto against a Republican-controlled
The fight over budget-busting transportation and energy bills
now playing out on Capitol Hill are a key test of White House
resolve to rein in non-defense spending. With rising prices
at the gas pumps and congested highways, Congress can point
to public demand for spending on those issues. But observers
also see political motives: perks for the energy industry
and construction jobs for many lawmakers' home districts.
Until now, the main battles with Congress have been waged
along partisan lines, such as the gridlock with Senate Democrats
over a handful of judicial nominations. On Friday (Feb. 20),
the White House blindsided Democrats on the Senate Judiciary
Committee by using last week's congressional recess to appoint
disputed nominee William Pryor Bush's second recess
appointment to the federal bench.
But the fight over big energy and highway bills cuts deep
across party lines. And for Republicans, it's forcing a tough
choice: Line up with president and show that their party can
govern when it controls both ends of Pennsylvania avenue
or split with the White House to bring more federal dollars
into the district.
The lure of pork-barrel spending in an election year is proving
hard for leaders on both sides of the aisle to resist. The
$318 billion transportation bill that the Senate passed before
last week's recess is $62 billion more than the White House
says it can support.
It passed by a wide margin (76 to 21) just a day after the
White House issued a veto threat. Encouraged by the strong
Senate vote, Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure
Committee are testing prospects for a $375 billion plan.
"The highway bill is being seen as a litmus test of
the ability of Congress and the administration to deal effectively
with the deficit," Treasury Secretary Snow told a Senate
Finance Committee panel. "To see a bill come out well
above [$256 billion] would have a very, very erosive effect
on financial market confidence in all of us," he said.
In a bid to avoid a break with President Bush so close to
an election, GOP leaders are angling for more time to work
out a compromise. On Feb. 11, the House passed a five-month
extension of the highway bill, now set to terminate Feb. 29.
Even Democratic leaders were pressed hard to add pet projects
to the Senate bill. Last minute additions to the bill included
$30 million for roads in Alaska and repeal of 25-cent tax
on wagers at casinos, expected to cost about $100 million.
Sticker shock is also threatening to derail a new national
energy policy. After a previous version of the energy bill
failed in Congress last November, Senate Republicans lopped
off some $17 billion in tax breaks that had ballooned its
cost up to $31 billion, in a bid to win over balking GOP conservatives.
Even at its new $14 billion level, the bill is $6 billion
more than the White House says it can support.
GOP lawmakers many of whom won their seats on a pledge
to bring fiscal discipline to Washington agree there's
a need for spending cuts, but just not in their highway or
power project. Senate GOP aides say that the controversial
bill may be bumped into the 109th Congress.
"Hopefully, the veto threat will stop the big spenders
in Congress, and produce fiscally responsible legislation
that will not harm taxpayers" says Tom Schatz, president
of the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste.
To be sure, much road spending isn't waste. Severe highway
bottlenecks now number 288 in 40 states and the District of
Columbia, up from 167 choke points in 33 states in 1996, according
to a new study by Cambridge Systematics.
Major reconstruction projects are making a difference in
cities like Albuquerque, Denver, and Houston, which have dropped
out of the top 18 bottlenecks.
Meanwhile, sharply higher energy prices contributed to a
0.5 percent rise in inflation, more than double December's
0.2 percent increase, according to a report by the Labor Department
on Friday. Republicans say it's another reason why a new energy
bill is essential, the first in 12 years.
"Republicans will claim that their energy bill will
help with prices at the pump, but it will do nothing of the
sort," says Bill Wicker, Democratic spokesman on the
Senate Energy Committee. "It contains most of the deficiencies
and special-interest giveaways" in last year's failed