Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Highway Lobby: Smooth Operators

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Despite Congress' fitful efforts to renew a multiyear federal transportation bill, the highway lobby has once again proved its reputation as one of Washington's most effective operators. How effective? Think $52 billion.

Since 1991, funding for highway and mass transit has been rolled up into a giant package reauthorized every six years. The existing law, a $218 billion program known as Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), was enacted in 1998. It expired last September.

Things haven't been pretty since. Congress has sent President George W. Bush no less than five extensions of TEA-21 to keep money flowing to federally funded transportation projects. In February and April, respectively, the Senate and House passed their differing versions of the reauthorization bill. Members of a conference committee charged with reconciling the House and Senate bills have been at work since early June.

The big holdup: money. In November, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee proposed a generous package totaling $375 billion, with a hike in fuel taxes as a possible way to pay for it.

But the tax-averse House ultimately settled on a more modest $275 billion version of the bill. The Senate came in at $318 billion. The Bush Administration, smarting from charges of fiscal profligacy, was the stingiest, with a $247 billion proposal--and it backed that lower number with a rare veto threat.

Just before legislators left for their August recess, however, a flurry of negotiations took place. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, offered up a $301 billion compromise. Two days later, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman William Thomas, R-Calif., offered a $299 billion proposal, which he said had White House backing. The conference committee adjourned for the break without acting on either arrangement.

But the highway crowd can tentatively declare victory: $299 billion is a long way from the $247 billion line in the sand that the Bush Administration had originally drawn.

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