By Carl Hulse
New York Times
WASHINGTON, D.C. Taking a cue from Ronald Reagan, President
Bush is threatening to cast his first veto on a popular highway
bill filled with pet projects of Congress members eager before
the election to win highway money for constituents stuck in
traffic back home.
Bush's insistence that the House and Senate hold down road
spending is turning the highway legislation into a test of
whether he and Congressional Republicans are serious about
their promises to restrain the deficit.
But lawmakers are determined to press for 3,000 projects
to benefit the voters back home, from the usual bridge, highway
and road-widening plans to things like $3.5 million for horse
trails in Virginia; $1.5 million for the Henry Ford Museum
in Dearborn, Mich.; $1 million for a transportation network
for the Army Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga.; and $5 million
for a parking garage in downtown Bozeman, Mont.
There is also $1.7 million for improvements to Guy Lombardo
Avenue in Freeport, N.Y., honoring the bandleader known as
Mr. New Year's Eve.
When Reagan was president, embroiled in the Iran-contra affair,
he took on Congress over highway spending in early 1987, declaring
that the bill "represents a failure to exercise the discipline
that is required to constrain federal spending, especially
pork barrel spending." But his veto was easily overridden,
proving a Washington rule: never stand between a member of
Congress and asphalt.
This time, White House officials insist that Bush, who has
yet to veto any bill, is serious about scuttling any highway
measure with a price of more than $256 billion. The current
House proposal is $284 billion, the White House estimates.
Some lawmakers had initially pushed for a bill that would
have increased that figure by almost $100 billion.
"Thirty billion, when you are cutting the deficit in
half in five years, is real money," said Trent Duffy,
a White House spokesman.
But the president's approach is causing trouble on Capitol
Hill, where rank-and-file Republicans staged a revolt Wednesday
over the amount of money in the bill and the way it is spread
among the states.
Instead of taking up the measure, lawmakers gathered in heated
meetings around the Capitol trying to resolve their differences
on for what many of them is the most important legislation
of the year.
"We really protested," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw,
Republican of Florida, who said his state would lose more
than $800 million the way the measure was now written. Saying
that Republican lawmakers in his state were united against
it, Mr. Shaw added, "We can kill the bill."
Critics of the bill said it was embarrassing that Congress
could not be satisfied with the $256 billion acceptable to
the president over six years, considering that it was still
a double-digit increase from the last highway measure.
They noted that for all the haggling over cost, there were
the more than 3,000 specific hometown projects totaling nearly
$10 billion in the measure. It is a far cry from when Mr.
Reagan vetoed the 1987 measure; he complained about 152 home-district
projects in that bill.
"We seem to have lost all shame as far as spending goes,"
said Rep. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. "The president
ought to be itching to veto this thing."
Highway bills traditionally are a favorite vehicle for winning
money for pet projects and this bill is no exception.
Lawmakers and those who follow the measure say the money is
distributed under a rough pecking order.
"I can't absolutely quantify it, but what I see here
is if you are on the committee you get a lot of money, if
you are in leadership you get a lot of money and if your seat
is at risk, you get a lot of money," said Keith Ashdown,
a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Ashdown called the "earmarking" of special projects
in the measure "the worst we have ever seen."
But Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, a Republican from upstate
New York, makes no apologies for the $50 million worth of
projects for his district that he managed to get into the
current version of the bill.