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Bush vows to veto any bill larger than $256 million

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.

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