updated 2/12/2004 7:55:29 PM ET 2004-02-13T00:55:29

Defying a presidential veto threat, the Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a highway spending bill that would bring jobs and billions of dollars in new construction money to states across the country.

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The Republican-controlled Senate voted 76-21 to pass a six-year, $318 billion highway and mass transit spending bill, replacing the current six-year program that expires at the end of this month. The vote margin would be enough to override a possible presidential veto.

“Everybody agrees we need to put much more money into roads, highways, bridges and mass transit,” said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., a chief sponsor. “This bill does that.”

But the $318 billion sought far outstrips the $218 billion approved for the current six-year plan and the $256 billion the administration insists should be the ceiling at a time when the government faces record-high budget deficits. The House has yet to act on its bill. Some House members say the Senate total is too low to fix the nation’s crumbling highways.

The administration says it would recommend that Bush use his veto authority for the first time in his presidency if the final bill is at the Senate spending level.

“This is the first test for the Congress when it comes to spending restraint,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Thursday. “We urge Congress to hold the line on spending.”

Lawmakers eager for jobs
But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said conservative estimates are that the bill will create 1.6 million jobs over its lifetime. It is politically important to many lawmakers eager to direct federal spending to their states and districts.

Showing their willingness to take on the president, senators voted 78-20 to defeat an amendment by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., to reduce the funding to the president’s $256 billion figure.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that even as a fiscal conservative he believed in spending more in certain areas such as national defense and infrastructure. “I know that’s what we are supposed to be doing here.”

With Democrats generally supporting the bill, the fight was mainly among Republicans.

“The party of fiscal sanity, the party of smaller government,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is supporting a bill “when the president of the United States and the American people are saying enough, enough deficit spending.”

Litmus test
At a Senate Finance Committee hearing, Treasury Secretary John Snow characterized the highway bill as a litmus test for the government’s will to cut the deficit. A bill that exceeds the president’s request, he said, “would have a very, very very corrosive effect in financial market confidence in all of us.”

Senate supporters denied that it increased the deficit, saying all the money comes out of the highway trust fund paid for by the 18.4-cent federal tax that drivers pay at the gas pump. The Senate Finance Committee outlined several budgetary actions, some questioned by critics of the bill, to increase the flow of money into the trust fund.

In a key vote Thursday, the Senate defeated, by 72-24, an attempt by McCain to declare the bill out of order because it exceeded previously set budget limits.

Earlier, the Senate voted 86-11 to end a filibuster from conservatives who agreed with the administration that the deficit-ridden government can’t afford the highway bill. Both the budget and filibuster votes needed 60-vote majorities.

Backers of full funding said 35 percent of the 42,000 people killed annually in vehicle crashes die because of road conditions. They also said congestion costs the average peak-hour driver $1,160 a year and the nation $67 billion in wasted fuel and lost productivity.

Funding formula rebellion quashed
Bill sponsors also turned back a rebellion from senators who claimed that their states lose out under a formula that guarantees that by 2009 every state will get at least 95 cents back for every dollar it contributes to the trust fund.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, sought to shift $9 billion in unallocated funds in the bill to help rapid-growth states such as Texas, California and Florida with pressing infrastructure needs. Her amendment was defeated, 78-17.

With little hope of getting a bill soon, the House voted Wednesday to extend the existing highway program for four months, through the end of June. The current program ended in September but was temporarily extended through the end of this month.

The House Transportation Committee is seeking even more money, $375 billion, and has proposed raising the gasoline tax, an idea strongly opposed by the White House and House GOP leaders.

But one Senate conservative, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that “probably over time conservatives are going to have to come to grips with the idea that a gas tax increase is going to be the only legitimate way, and honest way, to make up the shortfalls in terms of highway needs.”

The Senate bill is S.1072.

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