An administration-backed bill to raise the federal gasoline tax a nickel a gallon cleared a first hurdle in the Senate yesterday as senators voted 75 to 13 to limit a curtain-raising filibuster.
But further resistance was expected, along with fights over expected riders to add money for jobs creation and to freeze natural gas prices, and the Senate was threatened with the prospect of night sessions into the weekend in order to wind up business of the 97th Congress before Christmas.
Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said last night he still expects the gasoline tax increase to pass but predicted a "real donnybrook" over amendments.
The bill, already approved by the House, would raise the gasoline tax from 4 to 9 cents a gallon on April 1 to finance highway, bridge and transit system repairs and thereby, according to its advocates, create an estimated 320,000 jobs to help alleviate unemployment.
But Senate Democrats want to substitute a $9.7 billion jobs program, financed by putting an earnings ceiling on the 10 percent income tax cut that is scheduled for next July. Also, a bipartisan group of senators is pushing to block natural gas price increases, and senators from gas-producing states are threatening a filibuster on that issue.
As the last scheduled week of the lame-duck session got under way, Baker listed three "must" items for the remainder of the year: the gasoline tax increase, defense appropriations and a "continuing resolution" to keep the government operating after current stopgap spending authority expires at midnight Friday.
However, Baker indicated that defense spending might have to be wrapped into the omnibus continuing resolution, and a leadership aide said later that passage of a regular defense appropriations bill for next year appears increasingly unlikely.
In the House, the Rules Committee paved the way for action today on the huge stopgap spending measure by voting to permit separate votes on several controversial issues, including pay raises for members of Congress and for high-level federal executives whose salaries are currently frozen.
Votes will also be allowed on several controversial public works projects, including the Clinch River breeder reactor.
Last week the House Appropriations Committee voted to eliminate the federal pay cap, which, unless reversed or modified by the full House, could mean an increase of nearly $17,000 in the current annual pay of $60,663 for a member of Congress and corresponding increases for federal executives.
The Rules Committee action yesterday permits votes on two pay increase amendments, one to increase salaries by an amount less than $17,000 and another to continue the existing freeze. Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who is leading the pay raise fight, acknowledged that even a compromise faces trouble, in light of high unemployment in the country as a whole as well as members' customary fears of voter hostility toward congressional pay raises.
In the Senate, which would also have to approve a pay raise, Baker indicated even more skepticism. "I think Congress is institutionally incapable of adjusting its own salaries," said Baker.
The filibuster-limiting vote in the Senate did nothing more than clear the way for consideration of the gasoline tax increase and its accompanying amendments. But the size of the vote, 15 more than needed to invoke debate-limiting cloture, offered at least a flicker of hope that the Senate may be ready to speed up its work. Seven Democrats and six Republicans voted against cloture, apparently for different reasons.