Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) yesterday predicted that the Senate will follow the House and approve a 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax despite Republican filibuster threats and Democratic plans to push instead for higher income taxes on the wealthy.
The gas tax increase, which would raise the present 4-cent levy to 9 cents on April 1, was passed early yesterday by the House, 262 to 143, as part of highway authorization legislation that includes $5.5 billion a year for job-creating road, bridge and mass transit repair work.
The House vote was a joint triumph for President Reagan and Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who worked in unusual concert against an equally curious array of foes ranging from both management and labor in the trucking industry, which objected to higher levies on heavy trucks, to environmentalists, who feared the impact of new interstate highway construction.
A similar array of opponents, led by the truckers, faces the measure in the Senate, along with some other complications that Baker said could delay, although probably not jeopardize, passage.
Committee action on the bill started yesterday, and Senate floor action is scheduled to begin Thursday.
Among the complications was the threat of a filibuster from maverick Republicans, led by Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.), who told a news conference attended by other critics of the measure that he planned "sustained and extensive debate" on the bill, a euphemism for a filibuster in the Senate.
"Last night the lame-duck Congress laid its first rotten egg," said Humphrey, speaking of House passage of the gas tax and highway measure. He called it "New Deal nonsense . . . Keynesian claptrap," and accused Congress of having "panicked" at unemployment and having succumbed to the temptation to "do something even if it's the wrong thing."
In addition, Senate Democrats formally endorsed a $9.7 billion alternative, most details of which were disclosed last week, that would be financed by an income cutoff on the 10 percent income tax cut scheduled for next July. Under the Senate Democrats' proposal, the tax cut would be phased out for people earning between $50,000 and $65,000 a year and eliminated for all those earning more than $65,000 annually.
The Senate Democrats' plan would provide $6 billion for rebuilding highway, bridge, transit and water and sewer systems, along with $3.7 billion for other public works repairs, job retraining, jobs for older people, reforestation, mine reclamation, public housing rehabilitation and extension of unemployment benefits for up to five weeks.
Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said he and his colleagues will try to substitute their plan for the gas tax and highway measure but said there is no party strategy on how to deal with the bill if, as expected, they fail.
Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.) said he would support the gas tax increase, but others indicated they would not, calling it a regressive tax that hits the poor the hardest.
Nor, said the Senate Democrats, have they decided as a group whether to support House Democratic leaders' plans to attach $5 billion in extra jobs money to a "continuing resolution" for funding the government that must be passed by Dec. 18. They said they may try again with their own proposals.
In light of all the maneuvering, Baker warned that attempts to turn the bill into a "Christmas tree" could delay scheduled adjournment of the lame-duck session by Dec. 17, possibly even requiring sessions during Christmas week and the following week.
He also reiterated his opposition to consideration of any job-creating measures other than the gas tax and highway bill, although some Republicans are pushing for some extra jobs money.
In the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) was rebuffed in an attempt to add $1 billion to the highway measure for construction of waste-water treatment facilities.
Instead, the committee adopted administration concessions, similar to ones approved by the House, to assure that states get their fair shares of the highway largess. Today it also will consider a proposal to allow 105,000-pound, triple-trailer trucks that western shippers are pushing for use on their interstate highways.
The Senate Finance Committee will consider tax portions of the measure today, including a possible revision to placate angry truckers by phasing in and possibly lowering heavy-truck taxes that would take effect Jan. 1, l984, under the House-passed measure.