Senate Boosts Highway Spending
By Eric Pianin
The big showpiece bill -- covering virtually every form of transportation from highways to bridges to subways to bike paths -- provides nearly $60 billion more for transportation programs than the expiring law and almost matches the demands of the House's most aggressive highway spending advocates. About half of the increased spending was authorized by last year's budget deal, while under the Senate version the remainder will be made up by cutting other domestic programs.
The measure would also require a majority of states to impose tougher anti-drunk driving laws or face the loss of federal funds. It also preserves a program that helps to steer a portion of government construction contracts to women and minorities. For the Washington region, the bill includes $900 million for the reconstruction of the Wilson Bridge crossing the Potomac River at Alexandria.
Congress is under pressure from governors, business and labor groups to complete action on new legislation before a May 1 deadline, to avert delays in billions of dollars worth of planned highway and bridge construction projects.
House Republican leaders yesterday reached what Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) described as the "framework" for the House version of the bill. According to aides, the House bill roughly parallels House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster's plan for $217 billion of spending -- about $3 billion more than the Senate over six years.
Shuster (R-Pa.) told reporters he was "pleasantly astounded" by the size of the Senate spending package -- nearly $30 billion more than Senate GOP leaders had initially been willing to support -- and predicted that the House would respond with a bill of its own before the April recess.
However, a compromise between the two chambers may be slowed by disputes over specifically targeted projects for favored legislators -- otherwise known as pork barrel spending -- and the issue of how to pay for the overall increase without violating the spending caps of last year's balanced budget agreement.
While the Senate-passed bill is largely devoid of earmarked funds for so-called demonstration projects in targeted congressional districts, Shuster's bill would earmark roughly $9 billion for such projects -- or 5 percent of the total highway construction funds. The Senate yesterday approved an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would severely restrict the funding of demonstration projects.
Also, the Senate agreed to cut other domestic programs to offset the nearly $30 billion of increased highway spending that exceeds the budget agreement spending caps. Shuster, by contrast, would change the budget rules to use future surpluses in the federal Highway Trust Fund to cover the additional costs.
Some Senate GOP leaders complained that Shuster and his allies were being greedy and joined the Clinton administration in vowing to oppose Shuster's efforts to move the highway trust fund "off budget" and hence off-limits for spending for anything other than highway programs. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) warned that such a move would force Congress to gut spending for other important programs, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and education, in order to keep overall domestic spending within the caps.
"I'm hearing rumors from the House that we haven't done enough," said Domenici. "If somebody wants to go much farther and take it all off budget, then I don't know how we are going to meet those spending caps."
Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who was present for the Senate vote, declared that Shuster's proposal would undermine the fiscal discipline that Congress and the administration have finally achieved. "That's not going to be in the bill," he said.
Yesterday's Senate vote capped two weeks of extended debate and wrangling over spending. The turning point came early in the debate, when Senate leaders from both parties struck a deal to increase highway spending by nearly $26 billion more than recommended last fall by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Of primary importance, the compromise corrected long standing inequities in the formula for distributing highway funds by assuring that no state gets back less than 91 cents for every $1 of taxes paid into the Federal Highway Trust Fund through gasoline taxes. Under the current formula, some so-called donor states, especially in the South and the Midwest, get back as little as 71 cents for every dollar they pay into the highway system.
The legislation carves out $173 billion for highway construction and safety programs through 2003, up 38 percent from the six-year plan that ended last fall. Mass transit would get $41.3 billion, a 31 percent boost. About $1.9 billion of the highway funds would be spent to complete highway corridors in the 13 states represented by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
The only dissenting votes were from Wisconsin's two Democrats, Herb Kohl and Russell Feingold, and Pennsylvania's two Republicans, Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum.
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