SPECIAL REPORT: Senate OKs highway bill by veto-proof margin

| 2/13/2004

Defying a presidential veto threat, the Senate Feb. 12 approved by a vote of 76-21 a highway spending bill that would bring jobs and billions of dollars in new construction money to states across the country, The Associated Press reported.

The six-year, $318 billion highway and mass transit spending bill replaces the current six-year program that expires at the end of this month. The vote margin would be enough to override a presidential veto.

"Everybody agrees we need to put much more money into roads, highways, bridges and mass transit," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., a chief sponsor. "This bill does that."

The $318 billion exceeds the $256 billion number the administration insists should be the ceiling at a time when the government faces record budget deficits. The House has yet to act on its six-year bill. Some House members say the Senate total is too low to fix the nation's crumbling highways.

The administration says it would recommend that Bush use his veto authority for the first time in his presidency if the final bill is at the Senate spending level.

"This is the first test for the Congress when it comes to spending restraint," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Feb. 12. "We urge Congress to hold the line on spending."

But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said conservative estimates are that the bill will create 1.6 million jobs over its lifetime. It is politically important to many lawmakers eager to direct federal spending to their states and districts.

The House Transportation Committee is seeking even more money, $375 billion, and has proposed raising the gasoline tax, an idea strongly opposed by the White House and House GOP leaders.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, said that "probably over time, conservatives are going to have to come to grips with the idea that a gas tax increase is going to be the only legitimate way, and honest way, to make up the shortfalls in terms of highway needs."