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House Sets Up Battle With Senate In Passing $219 Billion Roads Bill

By Alan K. Ota, CQ Staff Writer

(CQ, April 4) -- The House set the stage for a tug-of-war with the Senate over building roads and fixing bridges by passing a six-year, $219 billion highway and mass transit bill packed with special projects for lawmakers.

After a bitter battle on the House floor over $9 billion in pet projects added to the bill in committee, the House voted 337-80 on April 1 to pass it. Now it goes to a conference committee to work out differences with a similar bill (S1173) approved by the Senate on March 12. The administration said the legislation is a budget buster.

Among the funding tucked into the bill is $3 million over three years for a public television documentary on "infrastructure awareness," a $97 million crosstown bridge in Oklahoma City and $12 million over six years for an Appalachian Transportation Institute at Marshall University.

Many issues remain outstanding for the House-Senate conference, which begins its work April 21 and has nine days to reach a compromise before temporary funding runs out on April 30. Negotiators must find the money for the biggest public works bill in history, decide how to crack down on drunken driving and determine the future of a tax credit for gasoline mixed with ethanol.

Republican Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which engineered the legislation (HR2400), said it would provide a historic funding boost at a time when many roads and bridges in the United States are in dire need of repairs.

Shuster compared the cost of the bill with other expensive transportation projects in U.S. history, including construction of the Panama Canal and the Interstate Highway System started in 1956.

"Save our roads, improve mass transit, job creation and environmental preservation. That is what this bill is all about," said Shuster, whose Pennsylvania district is the recipient of $25 million in special projects.

But Bob Inglis, R-S.C., who voted against the bill, said: "This is probably the most embarrassing night that I have ever spent in this Congress. We came to change things and we are not. We are participating in the big old trough that has characterized this place in the past."

The conference committee must settle on an overall spending level and handle the crucial task of identifying offsets, or spending cuts, to pay for an approximately 40 percent increase in transportation spending in both bills. Though the House and Senate bills are similar in scope, there are key differences.

The House bill would provide about $5 billion more in funding and includes formulas to apportion money that would not be as favorable as the Senate legislation to about 14 states with small populations, mainly in the West and Northeast.

Crucial Battles

The search to find the money for the transportation bill began March 31 when the House Rules Committee approved a rule that specified veterans programs should not be cut to pay for transportation projects.

"To pave roads you need hot asphalt," said Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "Right now, Congress' preferred method of payment is a hot check."

On April 2, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., defended $18.5 billion in offsets for transportation in his budget plan, including $10 billion in revenue from a potential change in federal policy to deny veterans health benefits for treating smoking-related illnesses that did not occur during military service.

But Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV said, "It is outrageous that veterans' programs are being looted in this way." In response to such criticism, the Senate passed by voice vote on April 2 an amendment to the 1999 budget resolution (SCONRES86) that called for a one-year study of health benefits for veterans with smoking-related ailments.

Another potential battle in coming weeks will be over how to satisfy more than 20 states that receive less than $1 in highway funding for each $1 they pay in gas taxes. Both bills guarantee about a 90 percent return on contributions to the Highway Trust Fund, but they use different calculations to measure the amount each state is guaranteed.

Clinton's Dissatisfaction

President Clinton continued to express dissatisfaction with the spending level in the House bill, which would soak up funding he wants for other programs. The bill would require about $26 billion in offsets because it exceeds spending caps in the 1997 balanced-budget agreement.

Returning from a 12-day trip to Africa, Clinton said on April 3 that he was "determined that highway spending, though it is quite important . . . must be within the balanced budget and should not crowd out critical investments in education, child care, health care, or threaten our budget discipline."

Opponents of the bill, including David R. Obey, D-Wis., and Vic Fazio, D-Calif., predicted Clinton would give serious thought to a veto.

"I pray to God that the president of the United States vetoes it," said Mike Parker, R-Miss.

Fight Over 'Highway Pork'

The biggest eruption came over the projects costing about $9 billion that were inserted in the bill by Shuster's committee and approved on March 24.

The project list remained in flux until the final vote. The House approved by voice vote an amendment by Shuster, increasing the number of special projects from 1,466 to 1,506.

In addition to the projects, the bill provided for a wide range of other items, including grants for universities and mass transit projects.

Critics said that much of the spending in the bill would pay for "highway pork," projects that they said could hardly be considered essential.

Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., accused Shuster and his supporters of being "Republicrats" and big spenders.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, D-W.Va., a supporter of Shuster's bill, shot back that Salmon and his colleagues are their own party of "right wing wacko kids for some of the philosophy they are espousing."

Kasich's Rebellion

House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, helped lead the unsuccessful uprising against Shuster's bill. Kasich had been defeated earlier at the Republican caucus when leaders backed Shuster and opposed Kasich's efforts to cut the bill.

Instead of trying to cut funding in the bill, Kasich proposed an alternative -- trying to revamp the nation's transportation funding system and return more control over transportation funding to states.

His proposal would have cut the federal gasoline tax of 18.3 cents per gallon to 7.4 cents per gallon at the end of a four-year transition period. He encouraged states to raise their own gasoline taxes to balance the cut in the federal tax. His amendment was defeated, 98-318, with two members voting present.

Kasich's proposal was doomed, with little support from states or from groups such as truckers that pay gasoline taxes. Opponents of his measure charged that it would turn back the clock on transportation funding to a time before the Interstate Highway System was launched.

Kasich and other critics of the spending level in the bill faced a phalanx of opposition from House members who stood up to defend individual projects that went to their districts.

For example, Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said a $16 million project to build a bypass for trucks around Austin would remove traffic from the "most dangerous section of Interstate 35" between the Mexican border and Minnesota. He said the bill would provide support for projects backed by House members and assure their priorities are addressed by state and transportation bureaucrats.

"These bureaucracies are not the know-all and be-all on planning transportation," Doggett said.

With a broad base of support, Shuster easily defeated two other efforts to cut funding in the bill. The House voted 79-337 to defeat an amendment by Graham to delete funding for special highway projects and funding for other mass transit and bus projects.

The House voted 106-312 to defeat an amendment offered by Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C., to allow more time to identify offsets or cut transportation spending by continuing for two more months the temporary extension of highway spending that expires April 30. The amendment was backed by the Clinton administration.

In the end, Shuster won broad support on final passage. Three members voted present -- Joel Hefley, R-Colo.; Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; and Jim McCrery, R-La. -- all members of the ethics subcommittee examining ties between Shuster and Ann Eppard, a lobbyist who is his former top aide. The fourth member of the panel, Chet Edwards, D-Texas, voted against the bill.

A Range Of Battles To Come

The contentious floor debate left unresolved a spectrum of issues that must still be settled in conference.

They include a battle over a proposed Senate extension of the tax credit for gasoline mixed with ethanol and pilot projects in the House bill that would allow states to be certified to conduct environmental reviews of road projects.

Shuster put off the debate on a number of key issues by reaching a "Big Four" deal with three other senior members of his committee -- James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat; Rahall; and Tom Petri, R-Wis. -- to stand together against any amendment that any one of them opposed.

That agreement helped prevent some controversial proposals from reaching the floor, where debate could have delayed efforts to send legislation to Clinton before the April 30 deadline.

As part of efforts to expedite the House vote, the Rules Committee crafted a narrow plan for floor debate that winnowed about 30 proposed amendments down to six, including three aimed at the controversial core of the bill: the big increase in spending without specific offsets, which must be decided in conference.

The Rules Committee refused to allow an amendment offered Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., that mirrored language adopted by the Senate in March to withhold a share of federal funding from states that do not enact a lower blood-alcohol content threshold of .08 percent for drunken-driving violations. The House bill would provide incentives, in the form of highway safety funding, to states that lower the threshold and take other steps to encourage safety and driver sobriety.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., a backer of the Senate provision, charged that the House was influenced by campaign donations.

A study by the Center for Responsive Politics found that the alcohol industry accounted for $734,000 in donations to political action committees and $989,000 in soft money contributions to political parties in 1997 and so far in 1998.

Shuster and other backers of the House approach to curbing drunken driving said the Senate provision would impinge on states' rights.

For now, Shuster appears to have won the key battle in defense of special projects.

Rahall said he doubts that senators would mount a strong attack on special projects in conference and would instead focus on pushing their own projects.

"In the past, they have come into conference with proposals for projects of their own tucked in their pockets and tucked in their socks," Rahall said.

For one, Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., wants to defend and perhaps increase the $900 million in funding in the Senate bill to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge near Washington, D.C. The House bill would not provide any funding for the project.

It remains unclear how strongly Shuster and others would fight for a provision in the House bill that would take the Highway Trust Fund off budget. John H. Chafee, R-R.I., and other senators have vowed opposition, and some supporters of the House bill have speculated that the trust fund provision could be dropped in negotiations.

In other floor action, the House debated and rejected, 194-225, an amendment by Republican Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey to replace a Transportation Department program that sets a goal of providing 10 percent of transportation projects to businesses owned by women and minorities with another program that would recruit and provide assistance to such businesses.

"I know of course that discrimination exists," Roukema said. "But we cannot attack discrimination with a different style of discrimination."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., supported the amendment. "The taxpayers of the United States should expect that the lowest competitive bidder will get the grant," he said.

Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate for the District of Columbia, defended the program and warned that Republicans would face retaliation by women voters who own businesses.

"Hundreds of thousands of women's faces are trained on us now," Norton said. "They are taking names, and they are counting votes."

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday April 4, 1998

All-But-Doomed Overhaul Bill Meets Its Expected End
On the Hill And At Home, GOP Is Torn By Internal Strife
House Sets Up Battle With Senate In Passing $219 Billion Roads Bill
Decision In Paula Jones Case Leaves Starr Determined, Congress Uneasy
District Runoff For Gonzalez Seat Could End With Favored Son

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