House and Senate negotiators have agreed to a level of spending for highway and transit projects that is acceptable to the White House. The agreement clears a major hurdle in the two-year effort to develop a new federal transportation plan.

Negotiators "have been working on a compromise for a transportation bill that would make much-needed improvements to federal highways," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said in a midnight speech on the House floor Thursday. "Tonight they came to an agreement . . . to move that bill forward."

Hastert provided no details. Congressional aides said the two sides have agreed on spending $286.5 billion over the six-year period ending in September 2009. The aides said the administration would accept that level.

Yesterday, President Bush signed an extension of the previous transportation bill for the eighth time since it expired in 2003. The program was funded at $218 billion over six years.

Congress has been unable to come up with a new bill, in part because lawmakers have sought significant increases in spending for transportation projects, drawing a veto threat from the White House over the cost of the bill.

This year the White House has warned that President Bush would veto any bill that went over $284 billion, the level approved in the House bill passed last March.

The Senate in May passed a $295 billion bill. Its sponsors proposed increasing revenues by cracking down on tax fraud and other measures so that it would not add to the federal deficit.

Money for highway and transit spending is derived from the Highway Trust Fund, which comes from the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal tax that drivers pay at the gasoline pump.

The latest extension goes through July 19, giving negotiators several weeks after they return from the Independence Day recess to work out details of the legislation, including the formula that determines how much states get in federal grants in relation to their contributions to the trust fund.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert announced the compromise

on the House floor late Thursday.