President Reagan telephoned senators yesterday, offering Air Force transportation to some in an effort to keep them here long enough to win approval of his nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax increase, while the heavy-truck lobby fought to kill the package because of the high fees it would impose on 18-wheelers.
Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) predicted that he and the administration would win today's scheduled vote to cut off debate on the measure and then the vote to pass it. Sixty senators must vote to halt debate, while passage of the measure requires only a majority of those in attendance.
The jockeying came with the lame-duck 97th Congress scheduled to waddle into the sunset immediately after completing action on the highway and mass transit rebuilding package. The Senate is in a take-it-or-leave-it position because the House adjourned Tuesday after approving a conference committee version.
Administration sources also predicted victory, but by a close vote. For that reason, Baker's office, the White House and the Department of Transportation were checking yesterday to see which senators have not left Washington and to make sure they will get votes considered "soft."
The Senate passed an earlier version of the bill, 56 to 34, but there was concern that some of those 56 members would leave town for the holidays. The administration was offering rides home on Air Force jets for those with faraway Christmas obligations.
"That's what airplanes are for," Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.) said.
"You watch," an administration source said. "Somebody will vote against us, then take us up on that ride home."
Some sources were predicting a final margin of only six to eight votes, with opposition from an odd assortment of liberal Democrats objecting to the regressive nature of the gasoline tax increase and conservative Republicans objecting to taxes in general.
The bill also gives lame-duck senators their only opportunity to claim credit for having done something to help unemployment, since the administration predicts that the highway bill will create about 320,000 jobs.
The House-approved conference report also includes a provision that would extend unemployment compensation benefits as long as six weeks in the hardest-hit states. That represents the lame ducks' opportunity to help millions who lost jobs.
The Senate has been blocked from voting on the central issue -- to raise gasoline and truck use taxes -- by a handful of conservative senators, particularly Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Anger against Helms for filibustering as senators strain to go home is so widespread, several predicted, that the vote to cut off debate will be overwhelmingly favorable.
The cloture vote is scheduled for 9:30 a.m., with the vote on the tax package planned two hours later. "I can assure you we will be out by the afternoon," Baker said.
Baker said he had been assured by Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has expressed a clear desire to go home, that the Democrats would remain for today's last stand.
Baker also declared dead for the session two other significant bills pushed by the Reagan administration: the Caribbean Basin initiative and the payment-in-kind farm bill to reduce grain surpluses.
The question facing the Senate "has become much larger than the gasoline tax," an administration official said in referring to Helms' filibuster. "It goes to the ability of the leadership to control the Senate and of the administration to pass legislation."
That realization, the source said, led to a substantially increased White House effort on behalf of the bill after Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis had carried much of the load in the early days of the lame-duck session before the measure passed the House.
Baker went to the White House yesterday with other congressional leaders and staff members to give Reagan a list of senators to be called by Reagan. "We're not going through a charade," a Baker aide said. "It will be a close vote, and there are enough uncertainties floating around out there to compel us to take it seriously."
Bennett C. Whitlock Jr., president of the American Trucking Associations, spent the day in meetings on strategy, counting votes and making phone calls. "We've talked to quite a few senators," he said. "We're asking them to vote against the conference report and to start over again in the next session" of Congress in establishing new truck-use fees.
In a news release, Whitlock said the trucking industry "is appalled" at the increases in fees under the bill. The ATA figures that a typical 18-wheeler will pay an increase in total highway taxes on fuel, use and tires of $2,203 in the second year. The truck-use taxes are to be phased in over several years.
Those fees, plus the 5-cent-a-gallon increase in gasoline and diesel taxes, are expected to raise $5.5 billion annually for highway, bridge and mass transit expenditures.
That revenue, added to the existing taxes, will push the federal highway program from about $8 billion annually to $12.4 billion in fiscal 1984 and $13.9 billion by fiscal 1986, according to preliminary highway lobby calculations.
Maryland's federal highway aid, for example, will jump from $334 million in fiscal 1983, the first year the tax will be in effect, to $389.6 million in fiscal 1986 under schedules in the conference report. Virginia will go from $268 million to $316.8 million, and the District of Columbia from $63.9 million to $77.7 million.
The nationwide program emphasizes completion of the interstate highway system and reconstruction of completed but badly damaged sections of the system, and it puts great emphasis on bridge replacement on federal and state highways.