WASHINGTON -- Last-minute budget roadblocks and widespread disenchantment with the highway bill's proposed gas tax increase and "pork barrell" provisions forced House leaders last week to postpone a House vote on the bill until September.
The vote had been expected Friday or Saturday under the House leadership's longstanding plans to complete work on the $153.5 billion bill before the Labor Day recess and go to conference with the Senate after Congress returns on Sept. 11.
The House Rules Committee met for four hours on Thursday to pave the way for a floor vote on the highway program which is due to expire on Sept. 30.
However, some unexpectedly complicated and serious budgetary problems combined with signs that a large number of House Democrats might have voted against the bill forced House leaders Thursday night to delay the vote, aides said. House Democracts became disenchanted with the bill because of its highly publicized special projects and 5 cents a gallon gas tax increase.
"The bill wasn't ready," said an aide to House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., who added that so many issues cropped up at the last minute that it was "hard to isolate one" as the reason for the delay.
While "unrest over the gas tax" was a major factor, many Democracts expressed equal concern about the bill's proposed "concentration of special projects in the states of key committee leaders," he said.
In addition, he said, jurisdictional disputes emerged between the House's powerful tax, appropriations, and public works committees as they wrestled late into the evening Thursday over the bill's proposed new pay-as-you-go highway and mass transit program, which would be financed with the tax increase.
The House Public Workds and Transportation Committee had drafted the bill assuming the new tax would raise $33 billion over five years, and they programmed that much new spending into the bill. But the House Budget Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee said at the eleventh hour that those revenue estimates were in error.
Under the 1990 budget agreement, they contended, the full $33 billion raised by the gas tax cannot be put into the highway trust fund, since about 25% of the revenue would be lost due to the corporate income tax deduction for gas taxes.
Therefore, they said the pay-as-you-go program would have to be dramatically scaled back to take into account estimates that the trust fund would receive only $24 billion of the new tax collections, with the rest going to the Treasury to offset the business deductions.
But the new revenue estimates upset the spending plans of Public Works Committee Chairman Robert Roe, D-N.J., who was adamant that the full nickel tax increase should go into the trust fund and be spent on transportation. "That was the deal. We wrote this bill around this level of funding," he said.
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee contended the new pay-as-you-go program should be included under the broad domestic spending caps established by the budget agreement, where it would continue to come under that committee's jurisdiction. Rep. Foley's
Rep. Rose said the appropriation committee appears to be "confused" on that matter, but it is nevertheless one of the sticky issues he must attempt to resolve in negotiations with the other committees before presenting the bill to the full House again in September.
The vocal discontent of some House Democrats to the proposed gas tax increase prompted rumors Friday that the House leadership might drop the tax with its accompanying pay-as-you-go program from the bill, but Rep. Roe said he has no plans "at the present time" to do so.
House Republican leaders claimed they have enough Democratic votes to pass a motion striking the tax increase from the highway bill. Even Rep. Foley admitted that voting for the regressive excise tax "goes against the grain for many Democrats." But he contended there is a "strong case" for such a tax increase if it is linked to higher spending on highways and mass transit.
"We need to do more about the infrastructure. We have the worst national infrastructure of any modern industrial society," he said. "It is a tragic condition of the country that the House can't come forward to meet the needs of the decaying infrastructure," he said.
Rep. Roe said the Democrats had enough votes to pass the bill last week, but could not have provided a big enough majority to override a promised presidential veto. He said that he hopes to generate more "enthusiasm" for the bill during the Labor Day recess.