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,"
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
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
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
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
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