WASHINGTON -- A full-court press by the liquor and restaurant lobby last night blocked a tough federal drunken-driving measure from ever coming to a vote on the House floor.
The House Rules Committee, a gatekeeper for legislation heading to the House floor, refused to let safety activists amend a popular highway bill with a measure that would set 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level as a national threshold at which drivers would be considered drunk. Thirty-five states, including Maryland, have a threshold of 0.10. The highway bill itself is expected to pass the House today.
The action by the Rules Committee ensures that the House will not have a chance to consider the drunken-driving measure, despite the measure's overwhelming approval last month by the Senate. Without the House's support, the provision will likely be omitted from the bill when House and Senate members work out the differences in their legislation.
"The liquor lobby certainly has taken over this Hill," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey, the New York Democrat who pushed the measure with about 100 other House members. "I am totally disgusted."
Members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving attributed their defeat to the money that poured into lobbying and congressional campaign coffers from the political action committees of alcohol and restaurant groups.
"MADD is not going to take this sitting down," said Karolyn Nunnallee, the group's national president. "We have 3.2 million members and supporters, and I'm going to let every one of them know this is the best House money can buy."
But liquor lobbyists and their allies insisted that the decision was based on the principle of states' rights, and that the federal government had no right to dictate drunken-driving laws. The measure would have denied states up to 10 percent of their federal highway funds if they failed to adopt the lower standard.
The liquor industry also argued that the new standard would be so low that moderate social drinkers whose driving is not impaired would risk arrest.
GOP Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado -- echoing an advertisement placed by the National Beer Wholesalers Association -- accused Lowey of "federal blackmail" for seeking to deny money to states that refuse to adopt the lower threshold.
Even without the drunken-driving amendment, the transportation bill will hardly be free of contention when it reaches the House floor today.
While the Rules Committee said there was no time to consider the drunken-driving amendment, the panel did allow the House to vote on a measure that would abolish affirmative action programs that cover federal transportation contracting.
The highway bill has swollen to $218 billion, making it the largest public works legislation in history. It shatters spending caps crafted in last year's heralded balanced budget agreement.
House leaders have vowed to offset the spending increases with cuts in other parts of the budget, but those cuts will not be specified until House and Senate conferees meet.
For months, budget hawks have held their tongues as GOP Rep. Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, gave members 1,467 hometown projects worth $9.3 billion.
But a coalition from both parties is beginning to speak out.
"Sadly, this Republican revolution has come to a grinding halt," said Christopher Shays, a moderate Connecticut Republican.
Pub Date: 4/01/98