Reagan Tries to Muster Senate Support to Back His Veto of Highway Bill

Associated Press

President Reagan vetoed an $87.5-billion highway bill Friday, denouncing it as a disgrace, and aides said the Administration is optimistic about winning enough Senate votes to make his action stick.

In addition to paying for numerous transportation-construction projects, the bill also would allow states to raise speed limits to 65 m.p.h. on rural stretches of Interstate highways.

Democratic leaders in the Senate said they anticipate a hard fight in their efforts to override the veto.

Unusual Ceremony

Reagan, in an unusual bill-vetoing ceremony in the Oval Office, said, "This bill is a textbook example of special interest, pork-barrel politics at work, and I have no choice but to veto it."

Although Presidents often hold such ceremonies to sign bills, vetoes are normally announced by merely releasing the message the President sends to Congress.

The ceremony, one day after Reagan's plane trip to talk about education in Columbia, Mo., was part of a series of events in recent days that have put the President in the public eye as he seeks to regain political strength lost because of the Iran- contra affair.

Senate Democratic Whip Alan Cranston of California said: "On merits alone, the Senate would override the President's veto of the highway bill by a wide margin. . . . Unfortunately, the merits are being submerged under a flood of tearful concerns about image."

'No Way to Lead Country'

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said the highway legislation was a good bill that got caught up in Reagan trying "to prove that Iranscam has not impaired his leadership. That's no way to lead the country and no way to work with Congress."

Reagan, however, sticking to the bill in his comments, said that "a few favored cities, with politically powerful congressmen, get hugely disproportionate amounts--billions--while other communities are cheated of their fair share" under the bill.

"I just have to think that's a disgrace to the American way of governing," he said.

He said he would send Congress "a responsible bill to continue highway and transit programs . . . that addresses our most serious objections."

'No Quick Fix'

Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Hanford Dole said the Reagan version would contain $16.1 billion in money for rapid transit and $66 billion for highway construction over a five-year period.

Cranston, however, said: "I can assure them (Republicans) . . . there will be no quick fix. What the President wants is unacceptable to a strong bipartisan majority of the Senate."

Aides said the Reagan bill will retain the provision allowing states to raise speed limits on much of the nation's Interstate highway system.

Reagan favors that part of the congressionally approved bill, but he said, "I'm not going to sacrifice this country's economic well-being" in order to achieve it.

Met With Senators

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Reagan made three or four telephone calls on Thursday, and met three or four senators in his office Friday in his efforts to obtain the needed votes to sustain his veto.

The telephone calls were made from Air Force One, as Reagan flew back to Washington from a speaking engagement in Columbia, Mo.

"We think we have picked up votes and it's close," Fitzwater said. "We are optimistic, but I would not say at this point we are there."

Seventeen senators voted against the bill when the Senate passed it originally. To sustain the veto, the President needs to get enough votes to prevent supporters of the bill from mustering a two-thirds majority. If all 100 senators vote, he would need 34 votes.

Dole Optimistic

The effort is being concentrated in the Senate because the vote for the bill was even more overwhelming in the House.

Secretary Dole said: "I'm optimistic that we are going to have the votes so the veto is sustained. We are getting close. But whether or not we have the votes, the President wins. He establishes that he is not willing to accept bad legislation."

On Capitol Hill, leading Democrats said they do not see an override as a sure thing.

Senate Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia said it "would be tough because of the President's public relations machine and his arm-twisting technique," although he added, "On the merits, we should be able to overcome it."

Passed House Earlier

The highway bill passed the Senate by a vote of 79 to 17 on March 20. It had earlier passed the House, 407 to 17.

Many of Reagan's supporters from states that would benefit from the highway construction authorized in the bill have argued that he should not spend his political capital against such a popular measure.

Democrats have disputed Reagan's contention that the measure is a budget-buster, saying 86% of the bill would be paid for through the gasoline tax.

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