WASHINGTON -- Doubts whether the House Ways and Means Committee can muster enough votes to approve a 5-cents-a-gallon increase in the gas tax to partly finance the highway bill stirred talk yesterday among lawmakers about postponing the panel's vote on the measure.
The threat of delay and possible defeat of the measure also led some congressional aides to say House leaders might try to "sweeten the pot" to get undecided panel members to vote for the bill by allowing them to attach amendments, including one bond provision, to the measure.
A markup session on the bill had not been scheduled yesterday, though the deadline for the committee to act on the bill is midnight tonight under the House's sequential referral procedures.
Rep. Bill Archer, R-Tex., the committee's ranking minority member -- who along with other Republican leaders yesterday came out forcefully against the tax increase -- predicted it would be defeated by the committee or, if it passes the House, be jettisoned from the bill in conference with the Senate. The Senate-passed highway bill contains no tax increase.
"The vote's very close, and it could go either way," said Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., who appeared with Rep. Archer and Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., at a press conference to blast the proposal. He said that at least 10 of the tax committee's 13 Republicans will vote against the proposal.
Last week, Rep. Cox was the sole Public Works and Transportation Committee member to voice opposition to the $153.5 billion highway bill because of its tax increase. Most of that committee's Republicans supported the bill because it contained special demonstration projects for their districts, he said.
Rather than raise the federal gasoline tax, Rep. Cox argued that the states should be allowed to raise their gas taxes to finance transit projects. "This is the wrong level of government" to do it, he said.
Democratic aides confirmed that the Ways and Means vote, if held today, would be close. An informal poll of committee members over the weekend revealed that at least six of the committee's 26 Democratic members are undecided or leaning against voting for the tax increase, they said.
Most Democratic members were jittery about voting for the tax increase because of the veto threat issued earlier this month by White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, the aides said. Mr. Sununu had warned that the tax increase could thwart the economic recovery.
Several committee aides and members said the vote on the gas tax should be postponed until after Congress returns from its Labor Day recess in September. They argued that an unfavorable vote would leave the House Democrats open to ridicule for their failed attempt to raise taxes, while a favorable vote would open them up to attack from the President.
Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., argued in a House Democratic Caucus meeting yesterday morning that the committee needed further time to consider the bill, though he did not acknowledge that he lacked the votes to pass it, according to aides and House members who attended the meeting.
There was some discussion of putting off the vote until September, they said, but the caucus did not explicitly decide the issue. Some members emerged from the caucus meeting saying a delay was possible, while others said the committee was expected to proceed on schedule.
Some members may have been using the threat of delay and defeat of the gas tax bill yesterday as a way to extract concessions from Rep. Rostenkowski and the House leadership, who have been trying to keep extraneous amendments off the bill.
"Some members have been waiting to see if the leadership offers them something, like they did with some members of the public works committee" to get their votes, said one aide. "A little sweetener might help to move some votes one way or another," this aide said.
One possible amendment drawing interest from Florida and Texas members could broaden the tax-exemption for private-activity bonds issued to finance high-speed rail projects, aides said. Currently, 25% of such bonds are subject to state private-activity volume caps, but the amendment would make them entirely free from such caps, the aides said.
Rep. J.J. Pickle, D-Tex., who had not decided whether to vote for the tax increase, yesterday was seeking a meeting with Rep. Rostenkowski to discuss whether such a proposal could be offered in the gas tax markup, aides said. They said his vote on the gas tax, however, would not be contingent on getting a high-speed rail amendment.
Aides noted the high-speed rail proposal is also favored by Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., who Rep. Cox said was one of the few committee Republicans likely to support the tax increase.