Bush threatens to veto highway spending bill

The wait for a six-year highway and mass transit bill that could pour billions into construction may be extended for four more months or as much as one year due to a veto threat and a filibuster in the Senate.

The Senate has been debating a $318 billion version of the bill for the past two weeks, but President Bush recently announced that if Congress approves the bill, he will veto it. His administration advocates a funding level of $256 billion. The Senate’s $318 billion spending proposal, however, is much lower than the House Transportation Committee proposed level of $375 billion.

Under normal circumstances a transportation bill that brings benefits such as jobs and better roads to most areas of the country has little opposition in the Senate. But with a half-trillion-dollar deficit facing the Bush administration, Republican senators are being pressured to lower the highway funding level. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., met with Bush on Monday and said he would be willing to slim the Senate bill to $290 billion over a six-year period. Bush did not waver, saying it was still substantially higher than what he wants.

The six-year highway transportation bill is a reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which expired in September. At that time, Congress could not agree on a new funding bill, and so a six-month extension was given. Congress will now need to agree on a funding level by the end of this month or else give another extension with the same funding as the current program. The House plans to act this week in passing an extension for another four months, however, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., advocates a one-year extension, which would push reauthorization until after the presidential election.

According to Stephen Sandherr, chief executive of the Associated General Contractors, said putting off reauthorization would affect highway safety. AGC supports the Senate’s $318 billion proposal, S. 1072, also known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003.

“Failure to enact a long-term transportation bill will only compound our current infrastructure needs,” Sandherr said. “The Senate bill addresses these concerns so it is both good policy and sound politics. Therefore, opposition to the Senate package represents bad policy and questionable politics.”

According to advocates of the reauthorization bill, funding would create anywhere from 1 million to 2 million jobs, help reduce the $70 billion in costs from highway congestion and reduce the number of deaths in highway accidents.

Besides the funding amount, one of the major debates between senators is what states will get the money and how the money will be provided. Federal highway construction money is supposed to come entirely from the highway trust fund, which is paid for by the fuel tax. According to the original proposal supported by House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, the increase in funding would be paid for by raising the federal tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon, that drivers pay at the pump.

Many senators are against the bill because it would make some constituents pay more in taxes while getting less transportation funding than other states. In the past, some states have received as low as 70 cents for every dollar paid into the highway trust fund. But, according to Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., every state will get back at least 95 cents per dollar by the end of the program in 2009.