President Bush dismissed Thursday raising the federal gasoline tax to repair the nation’s bridges at least until Congress changes the way it spends highway money.
“The way it seems to have worked is that each member on that (Transportation) committee gets to set his or her own priorities first,” Bush said. “That’s not the right way to prioritize the people’s money. Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities.”
Bush was responding to a reporter's question at a White House press conference. The question referred to last week's collapse of the span over the Mississippi River at Minneapolis.
About $24 billion, or 8 percent of the last $286 billion highway bill, was devoted to highway and bridge projects singled out by lawmakers. The balance is sent in the form of grants to states, which then decide how it will be spent. Federal money accounts for about 45 percent of all infrastructure spending.
The Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee proposed a 5-cent increase in the 18.3 cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax to establish a new trust fund for repairing or replacing structurally deficient highway bridges.
Confident about Pakistan
On terrorism, Bush said he is confident in the ability of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on militants at the Afghan border and cooperate with the U.S.
He said he expected Musharraf to take “swift action if there is actionable intelligence inside his country.” Bush refused to address whether the U.S. troops would go into Pakistan without permission from leaders there.
“We spend a lot of time with the leadership in Pakistan talking about what we will do with actionable intelligence,” Bush said. “Am I confident they (terrorists) will be brought to justice? My answer is, ‘Yes I am.’”
Musharraf, a key ally in Washington’s fight against terrorism, is under growing U.S. pressure. But the Pakistani leader is under considerable pressure at home too.
He has seen dwindling popular support amid a failed bid to oust the country’s chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry — an independent-minded judge likely to rule on expected legal challenges to Musharraf’s bid for re-election to another five-year term. Musharraf also has been beset by rising violence in the country, particularly following an army raid to end the takeover of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, an operation that left more than 100 people dead.
Speculation that an emergency could be imminent grew after Musharraf on Wednesday abruptly pulled out of a meeting in Kabul with more than 600 Pakistani and Afghan tribal leaders, phoning Afghan President Hamid Karzai to say he couldn’t attend because of “engagements” in Islamabad.
At home, Bush ruled out any bailout of homeowners hit with foreclosures in the form of direct assistance. But he said “enormous empathy” is in order for such people and indicated he was open to some federal help for people to refinance and keep their homes.
“The word bailout — I’m not exactly sure what you mean. If you mean direct grants to homeowners, the answer would be no,” the president said.
The delinquency rate on home loans was almost 5 percent in the first three months of the year.
On the controversy of former NFL player Pat Tillman’s friendly fire death while serving in the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Bush said “the best way to honor that commitment of his is to find the truth.”
He said he expects the military “to get to the bottom” of why Tillman’s death was initially explained as the result of enemy fire.
The midmorning session was Bush's first full news conference since July 12 when he inaugurated the newly refurbished White House briefing room. Since then, he has had brief question-and-answer sessions with Britain's new prime minister, Gordon Brown, and with Karzai.
Weekend in Maine
With Congress already out of town, Bush was to leave Washington at midday for a three-night stay at his father's oceanfront compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. On Saturday, Bush will meet in Kennebunkport with France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is vacationing at an estate on Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H., about 50 miles away.
The president is to return to the White House on Sunday and then head out the next day for his Texas ranch.
Bush is not expected to return to Washington until near the end of the month, although he is scheduled to make some outings from his ranch. He is to meet with the leaders of Mexico and Canada Aug. 20-21 in Ottawa.