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Senate Paves Way to Exceed Highway Spending Limit

Times Staff Writer

Setting up a showdown with President Bush, the Senate moved Wednesday toward approval of a $295-billion highway bill that the White House had threatened to veto as excessive in the face of huge budget deficits.

A majority of Republicans joined Democrats in voting to exceed, by about $11 billion, the spending limit set by the White House and endorsed in a budget agreement adopted by Congress two weeks ago.

The 76-22 vote on a motion to raise the spending limit underscored the power of pothole politics -- a display of bipartisanship in a chamber headed toward a partisan showdown over the use of filibusters to block judicial nominees.

The highway bill, expected to be one of the biggest pieces of legislation to come before Congress this year, has become a test of what deficit hawks hope will be a more determined effort by Bush to rein in spending. Bush has not vetoed a bill during his presidency.

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But the bill also is among the most popular, with lawmakers from both parties eager to show they are doing something about a favorite gripe: traffic congestion.

The Senate is expected to pass the bill by the end of the week. That will set up negotiations with the House, whose version of the legislation adhered to the $284-billion spending limit set by the administration.

Senators from states such as California, which receive less transportation money back from Washington than their residents pay in gasoline taxes, were among those pushing for greater spending.

The higher amount helps solve what has been a thorny political problem: how to give more money to states that get back less money than they send to Washington without taking away money from other states.

Less populous states get back more than they contribute because it costs more to maintain their interstates than their motorists pay in gas taxes.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, called the bill a budget-buster that violated the administration’s limit.

“What the heck are we doing?” Gregg asked. “Since the president has decided to try to exercise some fiscal discipline, it would seem that we, as the party which is allegedly the party of fiscal discipline, would follow his lead rather than try to run him over.”

A spokesman for the White House budget office, Scott Milburn, said after the vote: “The administration’s position is well known and unchanged. If Congress passes a bill that exceeds $283.9 billion, the president’s senior advisors will recommend that he veto it.”

The budget office has said that at $284 billion, the highway bill represents a 35% spending increase from the last big transportation legislation, approved in 1998.

The vote also drew criticism from budget watchdogs.

“At a time when Democrats and Republicans are always at each other’s throats, we can take comfort that they still agree on breaking the budget for highways,” said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.

“Pork knows no party label.”

He expressed concern that the Senate vote could open the door to other efforts to exceed spending limits.

But Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who favored the higher amount, responded, “I would challenge anyone to match my conservative credentials.” He said the highway bill would create jobs and spur economic growth, and, through highway safety programs, save lives.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) added: “We either pay now or pay even more later.”

The long-stalled bill provides funds through 2009 for building as well as maintaining roads, highway safety programs and mass transit projects.

Supporters of the higher amount -- who included California’s two Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein -- said they found ways to raise money, such as cracking down on fuel tax fraud, so they could increase highway spending without worsening the deficit. But critics have called those measures accounting gimmicks.

Congress has been racing to complete work on a six-year highway bill -- more than a year and a half after the last measure expired -- before a temporary authorization for highway programs expires at the end of the month. But the higher amount in the Senate bill could complicate negotiations with the House to reconcile differences.

“Greed may lead to gridlock,” Bixby said.

Although the House bill stays within the $284-billion spending limit set by the president, it too has angered deficit hawks because it includes thousands of lawmakers’ pet projects, including transportation museums and a snowmobile trail in Vermont.


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