House Sets Up Battle With Senate In Passing $219 Billion
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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
"These bureaucracies are not the know-all and be-all on planning
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
spending by continuing for two more months the temporary extension of highway
spending that expires April 30. The amendment was backed by the Clinton
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
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
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
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
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.