Steps Up Attack on $87-Billion Measure : Reagan Asks Public's Aid in Highway Bill Veto Fight

Times Staff Writer

President Reagan, facing his second showdown with Congress on a spending bill this session, Saturday unleashed another stinging attack on the $87.5-billion highway bill and asked for the public's support to make his veto of the measure stick.

Using his harshest language yet on the issue, Reagan condemned the highway construction legislation as a "budget-busting handout for special interests" and said: "I haven't seen so much lard since I handed out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair."

The attack, delivered in Reagan's weekly radio address, was another step in the White House's dual campaign of public criticism and private arm-twisting to get Congress to back down in the confrontation. The issue is seen as an important test of Reagan's strength in the aftermath of the Iran- contra affair.

Override Expected

The heavily Democratic House is expected this week to override his veto of the bill, but the outcome in the Senate is uncertain. Congressional leaders say Republicans, whom Reagan has personally lobbied for support, may be reluctant to rebuke him at a time when his image as a leader is at stake. A two-thirds vote is needed by both houses to override a veto.

New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, delivering the Democrats' broadcast response, said Reagan has been "misled" about the bill and predicted a "hair-curling recession" unless a highway plan is enacted.

Moynihan insisted that the measure would not strain the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction plan's limits because it would be paid for primarily by a special highway trust fund, not general revenue. The fund is financed with a 9-cent tax on gasoline.

And, contrary to Reagan's charge about "pork-barrel projects," he said the bill allows states to make 98% of the spending choices.

If the highway construction is not authorized soon, 700,000 construction jobs will be lost and the economy "deliberately, mindlessly" plunged into a tailspin, Moynihan said.

Figures 'Aren't Right'

"You can't spend money you don't have," he said. "But the President's figures just aren't right."

In Irvine, Calif., Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) said Saturday that he would vote to override the President's veto. "It's within the budget," Wilson told reporters as he left after speaking at a California Republican Assembly convention. He added that the bill includes "any number of projects which California has needed for years."

In his radio address, delivered from the Oval Office, Reagan said the highway bill authorized $10 billion more in spending than the budget could afford. When it reached him, Reagan said: "I got out my veto pen and used it fast."

Speaking at a rapid-fire pace, Reagan added: "I told the Congress to pare away the waste, to clean this bill up, get it back down to me within the week and I will sign it within the hour. . . . "

Reagan said the bill defies the spirit of the deficit-reduction plan, which he said "broke decades of bad tradition" in laying out a long-term system for cutting federal spending.

"But you know Congress and spending," the President added. He said Americans have a "tremendous personal stake" in the budget battle and urged them to tell Congress to "honor their pledge" of fiscal responsibility when they vote on the veto this week.

Urged to Lobby Congress

Moynihan also urged Americans to lobby Congress. Admitting the outcome in the Senate is "too close to call," Moynihan said Americans can help ensure that the veto will be overridden by contacting their senators "with this simple message: Now is no time to stop building America. We aren't finished yet."

In a similar confrontation earlier this session on another bill Reagan had criticized as too costly, Congress won, overriding his veto of the $20-billion Clean Water Act.

The five-year highway construction plan approved by Congress authorizes $17.9 billion for mass transit, including $870 million for the Los Angeles Metro Rail subway, and enough money to complete the interstate highway system begun under President Dwight D. Eisenhower 30 years ago. It also allows states to raise speed limits to 65 m.p.h. on rural stretches of interstate highways, a provision Reagan supports.

Reagan has proposed an alternative bill that would retain the speed limit clause but authorize less money for both transit and highway construction.

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