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Senate Ready to Defy Bush on Highway Bill

Comment:
An upcomming battle between Congress and the President over this impending transportation spending bill is likely to result in a compromise bill at the end of this month that places greater influence on a proposed pilot toll program already contained in the bill. The plan uses federal funds to transform existing state highways into toll roads which would fund other projects that the bill's current form already accounts for but the Whitehouse contests as "accounting gimmicks." The Senate challenge to the Bush Administration is little more than political play acting to secure what they all really want anyway: a tax and toll control grid on every highway in the country.

Associated Press | May 17, 2005
By JIM ABRAMS

WASHINGTON - The Senate stood ready Tuesday to defy a presidential veto threat and approve an enormous highway spending bill that Republicans and Democrats alike said was needed to make the nation's roadways safer and less congested.
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Senate passage of the six-year, $295 billion bill opens the way for tough negotiations with the House and the White House on the final shape of what could be the most far-reaching legislation that Congress takes up this year.

It could also be the last bill with bipartisan support before the Senate enters the highly divisive debate over the Democratic use of the filibuster to block President Bush 's judicial nominations.

The legislation also includes more than $50 billion for mass transit projects , $6 billion for safety programs and funds park and bike paths.

It creates a new Safe Routes to Schools Program with $70 million to encourage safe biking and walking to schools.

Among the dozens of amendments approved, one by Sen. Maria Cantwell , D-Wash., would require the Environmental Protection Agency to update fuel economy testing to reflect real-life driving conditions. Gas mileage stickers on new cars now inflate true fuel economy performance by 10 percent to 30 percent.

The last six-year highway bill expired in September 2003 and Congress has had to pass six short-term extensions, at smaller spending levels, while struggling to come up with a package that meets the nation's transportation needs while satisfying White House deficit hawks.

Last year the White House threatened a presidential veto of any bill that added to the federal deficit, and it has renewed that threat this year for any transportation bill that exceeds $284 billion, the level approved by the House in March.

The Senate, in a challenge to that veto warning, increased spending to $295 billion after the Senate Finance Committee came up with a plan it said would boost the amount of money going into the federal highway trust fund — by targeting tax abuses and other means — without adding to the deficit. The White House rejected that argument, saying the panel was using accounting gimmicks.

The House and Senate are expected to begin work quickly on a compromise bill, with an eye on May 31, when the latest extension expires. Adding to the pressure is the need of many northern states with short summer construction seasons to begin signing contracts for new projects.

Sen. James Jeffords , I-Vt., who heads the minority on the Environment and Public Works Committee, reminded his colleagues Monday that "we still have a lot of work to do."

In addition to differences over the spending level, the House and Senate take different approaches on the key issue of how money from the trust fund — the money derived from the federal gasoline tax — is divided among the states.

About half the states, including fast-growing states from the South and Southwest, pay more into the trust fund than they get back from Washington. Both the House and Senate bills would try to increase the guaranteed rate of return, which under the old bill was 90.5 cents for every dollar contributed to the fund.

The House bill, unlike the Senate counterpart, also includes some 4,000 specific projects worth about $12 billion requested by lawmakers.

There's overwhelming support in the Senate for a robust bill, with lawmakers citing estimates that every $1 billion spent on roads creates 47,000 good-paying jobs. They also say something must be done about congestion, which costs the nation $67 billion a year in lost productivity and wasted fuel, and the fact that poor road conditions are a factor in one-third of the 42,000 annual traffic fatalities.

"If we don't pass this people are going to die," said Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla.

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