WASHINGTON -- A new $275 billion ceiling set by the White House for a six-year highway and transit spending bill is apparently still too low for lawmakers wanting more money to fix the nation's roads and boost their home state economies.
The biggest public works legislation of the year has been stalled for months by a battle between congressional advocates, from both parties, for a generous highway bill, and the administration, which is demanding that Congress hold the line on spending.
GOP leaders, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, were holding talks with the White House yesterday in hopes of coming up with a final number for the 2004-09 package. A similar meeting last week failed to reach a compromise.
The 1998-2003 highway bill, funded at $218 billion, expired last September and has had to be extended three times since then to keep federal money flowing to the states while Congress works on the new bill.
The Senate earlier this year passed a $318 billion bill, while the House last month, under pressure from a White House veto threat, agreed on $275 billion. The White House has disputed that number, saying that the real cost of the House bill would be $284 billion. The White House originally said it would not accept anything over $256 billion, but House and Senate aides said that in staff discussions over the weekend White House officials indicated they would accept a bill that did not exceed $275 billion.
Hastert, who has taken the lead in trying to broker a deal, has said he is amenable to a $275 billion figure. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, said yesterday that Hastert is intent on reaching a compromise on the final number before proceeding with further negotiations with the Senate on the details of the legislation. ''The speaker is not interested in going to conference until we get that agreement," he said.
But there's strong sentiment in the Senate for a bigger bill, and businesses groups are lobbying hard for the $318 billion Senate bill. Aides said that $275 billion would not pass in the House unless the bill contained a ''reopener" clause.
Federal highway grants to the states come from the highway trust fund, paid for by the 18.4 cents a gallon in federal taxes drivers pay at the gas pump. Under current law, states are to get back at least 90.5 cents for every dollar they contribute to the highway trust fund, and states that pay more into the fund than they get back are pressing for that minimum to be raised to 95 cents.
The House-passed bill would reopen the six-year bill in two years if the 95-cent guarantee is not achieved, presumably resulting in the approval of more money. The administration strongly opposed that provision as another way to increase spending.
Meanwhile, lawmakers from Northern states chafed at the slow progress. ''We need a long period of planning" in the frost-belt states, said Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, said: ''The longer we wait, the more of the construction season will be lost, and the more jobs -- permanent jobs -- will be lost." Daschle has voiced objections about going ahead with House-Senate negotiations until he gets assurances that Democrats will not be excluded from the talks.