WASHINGTON -- The House Public Works and Transportation Committee yesterday approved by a 52-to-3 vote a $151 billion highway and mass transit bill, 15 days after funding and authorization for the transporation programs expired.
The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to act today on extending for four years -- through 1999 -- the 2.5-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax increase enacted as part of the budget agreement last year to finance spending slated for the last two years of the six-year highway bill.
States stopped receiving their federal funding shares for transportation projects at the beginning of the federal government's fiscal year on Oct. 1. Many of the states have less than $1 million in reserve in their highway accounts and are not expected to be able to withstand an extended delay of the reauthorization bill, committee staff members said.
State and local officials said there are few reports, as yet, of any hardship caused by the lapse in funding, however.
The committee's chairman, Robert Roe, D-N.J., pledged yesterday to drive the bill through the House as quickly as possible, but even he conceded it was not likely Congress would complete action on the measure before its expected adjournment at Thanksgiving.
The bill is expected to encounter controversy and possible delays over thorny issues such as its state funding formula and the gas tax extension when it goes to the House floor -- possibly later this week -- and in conference within the Senate.
Daniel Wilson, legislative representative for the city of New York, said it is far from clear that the Senate will accept either the tax extension or the bill's six-year funding plan. The $123 billion bill the Senate passed, like most such reauthorization bills, provides funding for only five years.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen, D-Tex. -- who has been an outspoken opponent of gas tax increases -- "holds the trump card" on any decision by Senate conferees to accept the House bill's proposed tax, Mr. Wilson said.
Late yesterday, it was uncertain whether the proposed tax extension would even clear its most immediate obstacle -- the House Ways and Means Committee. The tax committee approved a 5-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase included in an earlier version of the highway bill by only one vote.
Its close vote on the earlier gas tax measure -- along with vocal opposition to such a tax increase from both Republicans and Democrats on the committee -- raised doubts about whether it would pass the House with enough votes to overcome a promised Presidential veto, and forced the leadership to abandon the larger tax increase.
Mr. Wilson said he expects the tax extension to pass in the Ways and Means panel today. While the vote could be a replay of the earlier vote, he said it should not be as contentious as before.
The Bush administration -- which came out prominently against the earlier tax increase -- has kept remarkably quiet about this latest version of the bill, he noted.
Republicans on the Public Works Committee who previously opposed the gas tax increase also were noticeably silent yesterday. Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., a former Reagan White House official who spoke out strongly against the "Nickel for America" tax proposal, yesterday said nothing adverse about the tax extension at all. In fact, he was one of the many who voted for the bill.
Mr. Wilson said that with the presidential election season well under way, however, no one should rule out the possibility that President Bush will come out forcefully against the tax extension.