WASHINGTON -- The House Ways and Means Committee yesterday approved a four-year gasoline tax extension to finance the $151 billion highway bill, despite protests from committee Republicans over both the tax extension and the bill's hundred of "pork-barrel" provisions.
In a sigh both issues could continue to haunt the mammoth six-year bill as it goes to the House floor next week and then into conference in the Senate, Republicans warned that the Bush administration will oppose both the bill's excessive spending provisions and its tax extension. The extension would continue the 2 1/2 cents a gallon gas tax increase enacted as part of the budget agreement last year for four more years.
Meanwhile, President Bush scored another major victory in Congress yesterday as the Senate upheld his veto of the $6.4 billion extended unemployment benefits bill. The Senate's 65-to-35 tally fell just two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the President.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen, D-Tex., and other Democratic leaders said they would find a way to finance the unemployment benefits package, most likely with a tax increase. That would answer the President's biggest objection to the bill -- that it wasn't paid for under the budget law's pay-as-you-go rules -- but it might provoke a veto on other grounds, Republicans said.
On the highway bill, congressional aides said they expect the administration to increasingly attempt to influence its outcome as it approaches the final stages of enactment in the next month.
State and local officials also are closely watching the bill since funding for the transportation programs expired on Oct. 1, and many states are coming close to exhausting the reserves in their highway funds.
The White House has complained that the funding levels in the Senates's $123 billion, five-year highway bill are too high, and now it is indicating the House bill will have to be significantly downsized also to meet the President's approval.
Rep. Willis Gradison, R-Ohio, yesterday said administration officials do not believe the House bill's proposed tax extension, from 1995 to 1999, is necessary to adequately fund the transportation programs, and amounts to an attempt to prematurely "renegotiate the budget agreement."
In a related matter, a Transportation Department official at the committee markup warned that the President would probably veto the House bill over one provision alone, which attempts to force the Office of Management and Budget to use Congressional Budget Office estimates in calculating the cost of the bill.
The so-called directed-score-keeping provision "clearly violates the budget enforcement act and its inclusion will bring a veto," Rep. Gradison said.
Echoing concerns of other Republicans on the committee, Rep. Gradison said he particularly opposed the gas tax extension because the Ways and Means committee so far this year has failed to extend a group of popular tax provisions due to expire at the end of the year, including mortgage revenue bonds and small-issue industrial development bonds.
"I find it ironic that we are doing this when we can't decide what to do with the extenders this year," he said.
Rep. Bill Archer, R-Tex., and other committee members also complained that the bill still contains numerous "pork-barrel" projects, included at the request of individual House members, despite assertions by the House Democratic leadership that such projects were reduced by 30% when the bill was rewritten earlier this month.
The Transportation Department estimates the number of special projects in the bill increased to 489 from 455 in the redrafting sessions, Rep. Archer said. John Doyle, counsel of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, insisted however that the number of such projects was cut from 475 to about 450.
Democrats as well as Republicans on the committee expressed unhappiness with the "pork barrel" provisions. The committee nevertheless turned aside a motion by Rep. Gradison to strike the gas tax extension in protest over the spending provisions.
The committee approved the tax extension by voice vote, sending it to the full House, where action on the measure is scheduled for next Tuesday.