WASHINGTON - House and Senate conferees appear to be headed for a showdown when they meet to hammer out the $2 billion difference in their separate versions of legislation designating the highways to receive priority spending in the next six years.
On Friday the Senate approved, by voice vote, a "blueprint" for the National Highway System that would set priorities but would not authorize any actual spending for almost 160,000 miles of road connecting the country's main thoroughfares.
The roads outlined in the bill make up only 4% of the nation's highways, but would carry more than 40% of the highway traffic and 70% of the commercial truck traffic, said Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
"The National Highway System is the network of critical roads that carry the bulk of our commerce. State governments have cooperated with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Congress in developing it, identifying the ... roads as the backbone of our transportation system," Baucus said.
In May the House approved a similar bill designating the selected highways, but authorized about $2 billion for special highway, bridge, and mass transit projects.
Spokespersons for both the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over the highway bill were quick to make the case for one bill over the other.
The Senate bill is designed to be a blueprint for future spending, not a vehicle for funding the "roads that are in the districts of those people with the most pull on Capitol Hill," said Deborah DeYoung, press secretary to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, in a reference to the House demonstration projects.
"The Senate complaint is unjustified," said Eric Federing, communications director for the House Public Works and Environment Committee. The House selected the projects after listening to more than 200 witnesses, he said.
While Congress members hoped to get final approval for the bill before adjourning for the year, there has been no indication when the conference would be scheduled, said a staff member in the House Public Works and Transportation's subcommittee on surface transportation.
Congress was given until Sept. 30, 1995, to name the connector-highways as part of compliance with the sweeping Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.
The 1991 law was the first major reform of the federal highway system since it was first designated in the mid-1950s.
During summer hearings, Baucus said he would follow the Clinton Administration's recommendations and only designate the highways, not fund them. Any technical corrections to the 1991 legislation or so-called demonstration projects requested by Congress members would be part of another bill, he said.
The House bill made mid-course technical corrections and minor policy changes to the 1991 legislation, and in doing so "authorized money to be reprogrammed away from programs and projects that" hadn't worked out, said Rep. Norman Y. Mineta, D-Calif., chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee.
It was this "reprogrammed" money that the House committee dispersed to the various special projects totaling about $2 billion.
In the Senate hearings, several committee members expressed frustration with chairman Baucus for not letting the Senate designate its own special projects as the House had done.
In a July hearing, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said that because of the large number of special projects in the House bill, the compromise bill was virtually certain to include at least some financing for special projects.
In the same hearing, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena said he opposed any demonstration projects in the bill because projects designated by the Congress only take away from state priorities.
"I urge the House to consider the unanimous Senate position that this bill should be a blueprint for change, and I look forward to working with my colleges to approve a bill for the president to sign," Baucus said in a written statement after the Senate approved the measure.