KWAME HOLMAN: Every six years Congress takes up major transportation legislation to fund highway construction and mass transit programs nationwide. The bill brings new roads, bridges and jobs to every state, and members of Congress usually are eager to vote for it.
But this election year, increased highway spending is threatened by the need to control rising budget deficits. Under pressure from fiscal conservatives, President Bush called for a trimmed-down transportation bill, no more than $256 billion.
Nonetheless, the Republican-controlled Senate approved a $318 billion bill, and today the House passed its own $275 billion measure. Mr. Bush has promised he'll veto either of the higher figures. But House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young said even the House bill is tens of billions of dollars less than what's needed for America's roadways.
REP. DON YOUNG, R-Alaska: Before elections we hear a lot of people talking about Social Security, Medicare, education, border patrol, homeland security, prescription drugs; and they are all good and they are all needed. But there is only one way we can have the financial revenue to get those achievements done, and that is to have a good infrastructure system in place for the future.
KWAME HOLMAN: Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer:
REP. EARL BLUMENAUER: It was wrong for the president of the United States to draw a line here that he is going to veto his very first bill. I, frankly, don't think he will. It would be a tragedy for our communities. I do not think that this is the place to try to make the claim for fiscal responsibility.
KWAME HOLMAN: But a major area of disagreement in the House was over how to divide highway money among the states. Members from fast-growing, so-called "donor" states complained of paying more in federal gas taxes than they get back in federal highway dollars. Leaders promised to address that issue.
There also was criticism that the bill included some 3,000 special projects, or earmarks, for members' home districts. Arizona Republican Jeff Flake proposed subtracting the cost of such special project earmarks from the overall sum each state receives from the federal government.
REP. JEFF FLAKE: What it does essentially is says that if you want an earmark, that is fine, but that earmark should come out of your own state's formula, not everyone else's. I am not saying at all that nobody ought to get earmarks.
SPOKESMAN: I understand what the gentleman from Arizona is trying to do, and I want to compliment the gentleman. He is one of the few people in this body who did not ask me for any earmarks. So I do thank him for that. And I understand what he is trying to say. But I have to remind everybody about earmarks in this legislation. It is, in fact, a request from members, and it is the one time they might have an opportunity to represent their district.
KWAME HOLMAN: With passage of the bill still in doubt last night, Chairman Young added several more members' earmarked requests to the final bill. This morning, Arizona Republican Flake had this reaction:
REP. JEFF FLAKE: Mr. President please veto this bill. Please veto this bill. This Congress is out of control and it is in desperate need of some adult supervision.
KWAME HOLMAN: But most members felt differently. The transportation bill passed by a landslide.
SPOKESMAN: The bill is agreed to and without objection laid upon table.
KWAME HOLMAN: With most Republicans and nearly every Democrat, including New York's Tim Bishop, voting in favor.
REP. TIM BISHOP: If the administration follows through with the threat to veto this bill, they will be denying tens of thousands of workers in New York and nationwide good jobs.
KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, House members departed for their two-week spring break. The highway spending debate will resume when a House-Senate conference meets to come up with a final transportation bill.