Transportation bill extended, two-year version discussed

President Bush signed into law a two-month extension for the federal highway and transit funding bill Feb. 29, prolonging the previous extension until April 30. Legislators in the House are stalled on the issue and it is possible that a six-year funding bill will be thrown out and a two-year version accepted.

The Senate approved a $318 billion bill in February. Most Democrats and many Republicans favor a higher spending level, but Bush has made spending restraint a priority and has threatened to veto any bill with spending higher than $256 billion. Usually highway funding legislation has little trouble being approved in Congress. But the Republican-dominated House is trying to figure out how to approve a version that Bush would sign, while providing ample highway funding.

Last month the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Don Young, R-Alaska, met with the White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.. While Young advocated a $375 billion spending bill at first, he has since indicated willingness to drop a nickel increase in the federal fuel tax.

After Bush made it clear that a spending bill advocating new taxes would be vetoed, Young and others started to promote the idea of a short-term bill that would fund highway construction, safety and mass transit programs in fiscal 2004 and 2005. The bill would create funding until September 2005, allowing Congress to approve a six-year spending bill after the 2004 election.

Many legislators who supported the Senate’s version of the six-year bill hope that if a two-year, short-term bill were approved, it would be for $90 billion. Last year’s annual spending bill was for $41 billion. If a $90 billion, short-term bill cannot be passed, another option would involve the House trying to pass a smaller bill and then letting a House-Senate conference increase it. The package would be presented to the Bush administration as a product of a united Congress, which would make it hard for Bush to veto.