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House passes highway bill

Measure faces veto threat

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington Bureau

The Senate has already passed its version of the highway bill.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A huge transportation construction bill -- deemed a critical election-year jobs bill by Republicans and Democrats -- cleared the House with a veto-proof margin on Friday, setting up a potential showdown with President Bush, who says it is too expensive.

The six-year $275 billion bill, which would fund construction and repairs of highways, bridges and transit systems, passed by a vote of 357 to 65.

Earlier this week, President Bush threatened to veto any bill larger than $256 billion.

The price tag of the companion Senate bill, which passed in February by a vote of 76-2, was even higher: $318 billion.

Both versions had the votes needed to override a veto.

House passage puts Bush in the politically awkward position of either carrying out his veto threat -- and possibly having it overridden by a GOP-controlled Congress -- or backing down and letting a bill he considers too pricey become law.

If Bush does veto the measure, it would be the first veto he's ever levied.

GOP congressional leaders could avoid a showdown with the president by lowering the cost when House and Senate negotiators meet to work out differences between the bills.

Some lawmakers opposed the measure because they don't like the formula used to divide the money among the states. They complained that it is unfair for their states to pay more in federal gas taxes than they get back from Washington for highway and transit construction projects.

Others did not like the 3,000 specific provisions in the bill which direct federal dollars to individual projects, such as horse trails in Virginia and a parking lot in Montana. Those provisions are known as earmarks.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, called the earmarks "pork" which "represents everything people detest about Washington."

Keith Ashdown of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense also criticized the bill. "The problem is that lawmakers have been blinded by their greed to bring home the bacon in a election year and have forgotten that our nation has a fiscal crisis," he said.

But the appeal of those hometown projects -- giving lawmakers something to brag about in their respective districts -- helped assure the bill a wide victory in the House.

Democrats generally want even more money, arguing with 1 million construction workers unemployed, Republicans are missing an opportunity to increase the job rolls.

"The Republicans on the Hill are clueless in the Capitol when it comes to job creation," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, declared. "The Republicans are now dithering over a feeble bill which will not meet the needs of the American people and ignores the opportunity for job creation."

Republican leaders disagreed, saying the bill will create jobs but at a reasonable price.

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