Senate Approves More Highway Funds

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 12, 2005

After struggling all spring to pass a belt-tightening fiscal 2006 budget, the Senate overrode it the first chance it got to boost funding for highway projects.

Yesterday's 76 to 22 vote allows the $284 billion package to grow by about $11 billion, setting the stage for a veto showdown with President Bush, who has insisted on a $284 billion cap. It is a shaky start to a year that is supposed to be marked by fiscal austerity. But the revolt's wide margin suggests that many Republicans are prepared to buck the White House to address what they regard as an urgent concern.

For many lawmakers, relieving traffic snarls, filling potholes and repairing ailing bridges are as fundamental a government responsibility as funding the military. "It's like a homeowner saying, 'You know what? The budget is tight . . . I'm not going to fix the hole in my roof, because that might cost money,' " said Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.), usually a stalwart Bush backer.

Transportation projects create jobs, Talent noted, but they also help the economy function more effectively. "The American people cannot on their own build roads. That's a job that the government has got to do," he said.

The House earlier approved a $284 billion bill, but while it technically meets the Bush limit, it would allow Congress to reconsider state funding allocations before the bill expires in 2009. That caveat drew a veto threat. Many House Republicans are rooting for a larger Senate package so that a higher number is on the table during negotiations between the two chambers. The Senate could vote on the full bill as early as today.

Senators pressing hardest for the increase represent "donor states," which take in more in highway taxes -- mainly from gasoline sales -- than they get back in project funding. Much of the extra money will go to boosting donor-state allocations. Talent's state of Missouri would see its return boosted to 98 cents on the dollar, up from 90.5 cents.

"As a conservative Republican, I wholeheartedly support it," said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who wrote the bill, and whose state has donor status.

At the heart of the bill is a complex funding structure that takes into account a state's contribution to the Highway Trust Fund, its population, its median household income and fatalities on its interstates.

Funding battles have plagued the bill since 2003, when the previous bill expired. In February 2004, the Senate passed a $318 billion package but could not reach a compromise with the House. Highway funds continue to be doled out under extensions to the expired bill. The current extension expires May 31.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) implored the Senate not to increase the total, but when their GOP colleagues pressed ahead, an unusual confrontation erupted between one of the Senate's more low-key members, Gregg, and one of its more congenial, Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose committee assembled the tax increases and other revenue raisers that offset the additional $11 billion.

Gregg questioned the legitimacy of the offsets, calling them "illusory" and "baseless." Grassley hustled to the floor and shot back: "The complaints that we're hearing are from a committee that has no real responsibility to find real numbers, real offsets or real savings. It reminds me of an agricultural economist telling a farmer how to farm." Grassley, a farmer, was referring to the Budget Committee, on which he also serves.

"We lost," Gregg conceded, but he made no apologies for trying to defend the budget.

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