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GOP fails to agree on highway bill plan

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican lawmakers and the White House on Thursday were unable to come up with a dollar total for a much-delayed highway and transit bill touted as the biggest jobs and economic stimulus legislation Congress will consider this year.

"Lots of numbers were discussed," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., after a meeting in his office that included House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and top GOP transportation and tax-writing lawmakers.

"The general agreement is that we are going to work with numbers in a bill that can be enacted into law," Frist said.

The White House, concerned about the growing budget deficit, has rejected both the six-year, $318 billion bill approved by the Senate earlier this year and the $275 billion bill passed by the House this month. The administration has put a $256 billion ceiling on the legislation and threatened a presidential veto of anything that exceeds that and worsens the deficit.

Meanwhile, the latest extension of the previous highway bill expires Friday, and a senior Republican, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, said Thursday he would block another extension because of what he called Democratic delaying tactics on the new bill.

The House earlier this week unanimously voted to extend the 1998-2003 act for another two months, the third such extension since the act first expired last September. The failure of the Senate to follow suit would cut off, as of Saturday, all federal highway money flowing to the states and result in the layoffs of thousands of Transportation Department employees.

Bond, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works panel on transportation, said Democrats were stalling on naming House-Senate negotiators to work out a compromise on the new bill.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota has tied the naming of conferees to getting assurances from the GOP leadership that Democrats will be full partners and the final product will be the result of a bipartisan consensus.

The White House has shown little give in its position that the bill should not go over $256 billion, up from $218 billion in the 1998-2003 program. But with hundreds of thousands of jobs and thousands of projects at stake, that has displeased many Republicans and normally pro-administration business groups.

On Thursday 20 Senate Republicans, led by Sens. Mike Crapo of Idaho and Jim Talent of Missouri, wrote Frist urging him to stand by the Senate's $318 billion figure. "Anything less would be a step backward that our nation cannot afford to take," they said.

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association said Thursday that the White House proposal would not even keep pace with inflation, while Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, said anything less than $318 billion "would slow job creation and jeopardize hundreds of congestion-relieving and road safety improvement projects."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, said staff from his committee, the House Ways and Means Committee and the White House would meet over the weekend to discuss provisions in the House and Senate bills to increase money entering the Highway Trust Fund, the main source of revenue for federal highway spending.

The White House has questioned the legitimacy of some of those provisions, saying they would add to the deficit by merely shifting revenues from the general Treasury fund to the trust fund, which is principally financed by the 18.4 cents a gallon federal gas tax.

The Republican leaders are to meet again Tuesday to discuss, among other things, what sources of revenue the White House might find acceptable to boost total spending.

Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, insisted that the House bill was self-financing and criticized Republican leaders for being subservient to the White House. "They are just caught up in their own ideology," he said.

Once an agreement is reached with the White House over the six-year total, negotiators will still have to tackle the sticky issue of how to distribute the funds. States that pay more into the Highway Trust Fund than they get back from the federal government have long complained about how the money is allotted.

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