The House Public Works Committee accelerated the congressional game of chicken that has kept more than $7 billion in interstate highway construction money from reaching the states when it swiftly approved a three-page bill yesterday to release the money.
Although it does not say so, the measure also would protect funds for a favorite project of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), the Central Artery reconstruction in Boston. Rep. James J. Howard (D-N.J.), committee chairman, said he expects the House to pass the bill today.
The Senate has passed a different version of the same thing, which includes a pet amendment of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) that the House legislation does not include. House members said yesterday they regard their bill as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
"We will not go to conference with the Senate and they may accept it or reject it," said Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.).
Howard said there will be "no additions, provisions, add-ons, or special United States Senate pork barrels."
The issue involves the Interstate Cost Estimate (ICE), a usually routine table of Federal Highway Administration allocations Congress must approve before gasoline taxes collected for interstate construction can flow to the states.
A logjam over whether the Senate pork barrel or the House pork barrel was more meritorious has kept the money tied up since last April 1. Thirty-six states have had to halt interstate construction projects they are ready to build.
Pressure has been mounting on Congress. The National Governors Association this week passed a resolution urging quick action on a "clean ICE," one that simply ratifies the allocation table and contains no special provisions.
The Public Works Committee's bill comes close, but its allocation table includes money Massachusetts would need for federal funding of its preferred $2.2 billion Central Artery project, one that would depress an existing freeway and build a new tunnel under Boston Harbor.
The Federal Highway Administration's position is that a somewhat less grand project -- reconstruction of the existing freeway and a smaller tunnel -- is all that is eligible for interstate aid.
The House bill contains no language resolving that argument. "The project has always been there," Howard said. He said the bill "might not settle the legal issue, but we still have the authorization bill." A more extensive highway-transit bill is expected later this year.
A Massachusetts spokesman called the committee action "a positive step."
A Transportation Department spokesman said, "We are still reviewing the details." A Senate source said, "If we just name conferees, then it's up to them . . . . Isn't this the usual rain dance we go through?"