Transportation bill is passed by House

$275 billion package exceeds White House limit by veto-proof margin

April 03, 2004|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The House overwhelmingly approved a six-year, $275 billion transportation bill yesterday that President Bush has threatened to block with the first veto of his administration, setting up an unusual election-year showdown between the Republican president and members of his own party who control Congress.

Bush's threat reflects, at least in part, pressure from conservative supporters to take a firmer stand against federal spending in the face of a record budget deficit.

But lawmakers in both parties supported the highway spending plan - the largest public works measure expected to come before Congress this year - as an economic stimulus measure.

"This is the biggest jobs bill that we will vote on in this Congress," said Rep. John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr., a Tennessee Republican.

The House action, following Senate approval of a $318 billion bill in February, virtually ensures that the final measure that emerges from negotiations between the chambers will be higher than the $256 billion the White House had set as its limit.

"Even if the president decides that this will be the first bill his administration vetoes, they've spread the goodies around enough that they would be able to override a veto," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group.

The measure was approved by a 357-65 vote, a much wider margin than the two-thirds majority needed to override.

Overall, the nearly 900-page measure would provide $217 billion for highways, $51.5 billion for mass transit such as buying buses and building rail lines, and $6 billion for safety and research programs.

Loaded into the bill are more than 2,800 projects eagerly sought by lawmakers. That compares with just under 1,800 projects packed into the last big transportation bill, approved in 1998, when the government was posting a budget surplus.

Although many of the projects involve road construction and improvements, the bill includes such specialty items as $1.5 million for the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and $1.5 million for horse trails in Virginia.

Among the measures to ease gridlock, the bill would authorize states to allow solo drivers in carpool lanes if they pay a toll and to fund construction of trucks-only lanes. Funds also were included to pay for development of futuristic magnetic levitation trains that could run in excess of 240 mph.

Supporters argued that, in addition to boosting the economy, the bill is a necessary response to crumbling roads and growing traffic congestion in many parts of the nation.

Republican Rep. Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio, addressing dissent within the GOP ranks about the bill's price tag, told colleagues: "Republican values in this country are based upon a strong defense and a strong infrastructure."

Referring to the veto threat issued by the White House budget office, he added: "Why some bean counters have determined that we can do this bill on the cheap when the infrastructure needs of this country are crying out for repair is beyond me."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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