WASHINGTON — Even on the brink of a partisan meltdown, Democratic and Republican senators found something Tuesday that they could agree on: a $295-billion highway bill that provides funds for popular traffic-easing projects.
The measure, approved 89 to 11, has drawn a veto threat from the White House, which considers it too costly in the face of federal budget deficits since it exceeds, by about $11 billion, a spending cap set by the Bush administration.
The legislation funds highway, mass transit and traffic safety projects through 2009. The last highway bill expired in September 2003; because of conflicts between Congress and the White House over spending, temporary extensions have been used to fund highway projects since then.
The Senate bill must be reconciled with a $284-billion House measure that falls within the president's spending limit but has drawn the wrath of deficit hawks because it includes thousands of projects sought by lawmakers for their districts. House and Senate negotiators have said they hope to reach a compromise by May 31, when the latest extension expires.
But Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said Tuesday that the administration would not "give in to pressure to approve irresponsible plans that would no doubt lead to higher deficits or new gas taxes."
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said the bill would "drive a Mack Truck-sized hole through the federal budget deficit" and called on President Bush to make any bill that worsens the deficit the first veto of his presidency.
The bill's supporters, including some Republicans who almost always are allied with Bush, said they had addressed White House concerns by including ways to pay for the higher spending without worsening the budget deficit. Critics have criticized the measures as accounting gimmicks.
A key issue to be worked out in the House-Senate negotiations will be how to divvy up the money.
Officials from a number of states, including California, have complained that they receive less from Washington than their residents pay in gas taxes. But lawmakers from states that receive more than they send to Washington are fighting any effort to reduce their funding. Some less populous states get more than they contribute because it costs more to maintain their interstates than their motorists pay in gas taxes.
Under the bill, overall highway funding for California would rise from an average of $2.6 billion per year to an average of $3.4 billion, said Sen. Barbara Boxer, who joined her California Democratic colleague Dianne Feinstein in voting for the measure.
California is now guaranteed 90.5 cents for every dollar it sends to Washington. Under the Senate bill, the amount the state receives would rise to 92 cents by 2009. Feinstein said she wished the bill would do more to balance the books, but called it a start.
The Senate measure includes a provision that would offer additional money to states that pass laws allowing police to stop motorists for not wearing a seat belt even if no other traffic violation has occurred. Twenty-one states, including California, have such laws. An effort to strip the bill of the measure was rejected.
The Senate's action came more than a year and a half after the expiration of the last multiyear highway bill, a $218-billion measure passed in 1998. Supporters said the bill would create jobs, make roads safer and reduce traffic congestion.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), recalling the Roman Empire, told colleagues during the debate: "That empire eventually went away, and some people say it was partially attributable to the fact that they quit building the infrastructure."