WASHINGTON — The measure allowing states to raise the speed limit to 65 m.p.h. on rural interstate highways was unexpectedly thrown into limbo Thursday as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) vowed to amend the legislation in a way that would please President Reagan but probably would be unacceptable to the Democratic-controlled House.
As approved by the House, the proposal to raise the speed limit is linked to an omnibus measure that provides $87 billion over six years to fund thousands of highway construction and mass transit projects across the nation. Dole and Reagan favor the speed limit but want to spend less money.
Risk of Deadlock
And Dole, taking advantage of an unusual parliamentary situation, is trying to create a situation in which the House will be forced to accept a reduction in transportation spending or risk a deadlock that would not only doom the higher speed limit but also could bring all federal highway aid to a halt.
If the Dole effort succeeds, the measure "would go back to the House and it would fail" because the changes would deny funding for many House members' pet highway projects, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N. Y.), Senate floor manager of the bill, predicted.
But both Moynihan and Sen. Steven Symms (R-Ida.), who also helped lead Senate efforts to pass the legislation, predicted that Dole's effort would fail when it comes to a vote on the Senate floor today.
"The bill as is, and only the bill as is, can be passed by the Congress," Moynihan said. "Anything less cannot pass."
If Dole's maneuver fails and the Senate instead merely adopts the 65-m.p.h. speed limit without changing the House-approved funding level, that is what will go to the President for his signature. He has threatened to veto the bill because of its price tag.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed the House-approved $87-billion highway and mass transit bill Thursday on a 79-17 vote. But the companion measure allowing states to increase speed limits to 65 m.p.h. on rural interstate highways was set aside until today by the Dole maneuver.
Measure Is Separate
Under Senate rules, the highway bill no longer may be amended. But Dole can amend the speed-limit measure, which is technically separate. What he proposes to do is attach an earlier Senate version of the highway funding legislation, which called for $65 billion in spending, to the 65-m.p.h. bill. That earlier legislation would eliminate funding for many highway demonstration projects.
The spending and speed limit bills are linked by previous congressional action, and the Senate cannot send the highway funding bill, which was passed by the House Wednesday on a 407-17 vote, to the President until action has been completed on the speed-limit legislation.
Moynihan is a key member of the House-Senate conference committee that approved the $87-billion highway and mass-transit financing bill to which the speed limit measure is attached. Officials of many states have warned that, if a highway spending bill is not passed this year, thousands of highway projects and jobs will be jeopardized. Besides the road projects, the financing bill includes $870 million for Los Angeles' Metro Rail subway project.
After a meeting at the White House, Dole pledged to offer his amendment to the speed limit measure. Earlier in the day, Reagan had declared that he would veto the financing legislation, calling it "seriously flawed" and singling out Metro Rail in calling the bill unfair and overpriced.
The Senate bill that Dole wants to add to the speed-limit measure is cheaper in part because it contains none of the $1.8 billion in so-called highway demonstration projects that were added by the House. Those state and local projects, which critics contend are pork barrel measures, historically have been much more important to representatives than to senators.
Loss of Pet Projects
It is the loss of these pet projects that Moynihan predicts would make the amended speed limit bill unacceptable to the House.
Given the narrow margin by which the speed limit measure alone cleared the House Wednesday, it is Dole's bet that the amended bill would die, giving Reagan an out. The President then would not have to face the unpalatable prospect of vetoing a measure he supports--raising the speed limit--because it is attached to a bill he regards as exorbitant and unfair.
"All he's trying to do is spare the President embarrassment; do his dirty work for him," said a congressional aide familiar with Dole's plan. "The Administration would like to get 65 off (the highway bill) because to 90% of Americans this will always be known as the 65 bill, and he doesn't want to veto a bill that he supports and that is bound to be very popular with American drivers."
Would Go Back to House
If Dole's push for this amendment succeeds, the measure would go back to the House for consideration--tying up indefinitely the release of billions of dollars in federal funds for highway projects.
"This tactic puts us directly on course for there to be no highway program in 1987," Moynihan said.
Last fall, the House and Senate deadlocked on a highway bill. As a result, states have yet to receive their federal transportation assistances for the federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1.