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Budget, Highway Bills Battle for Favor

GOP Leaders Mulling

When it comes to the legislative process, timing is everything, a truth that House Republicans are grappling with as they decide which of the year’s two major initiatives to bring to the floor first — the fiscal 2005 budget or the highway bill.

The final makeup and timing of each bill will likely affect the other, as both measures are being considered amid election-year pressure on Republicans to restrain federal spending. These issues will likely arise this afternoon, when Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members are scheduled to meet with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

“There’s still people going back and forth on this,” a senior Republican aide said of the order of the two bills.

If the highway bill passes first and conservatives view the final number as bloated, they could increase their insistence on a fiscally disciplined budget.

But if the budget is brought to the floor first, Transportation panel members could threaten to withhold their support for it unless they are assured of getting their desired highway funding levels.

Transportation Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) initially pushed for a highway bill authorizing $375 billion over six years, but that number will likely be reduced as the Senate has passed a $318 billion measure and the White House has threatened to veto anything over $256 billion.

Young’s predecessor as chairman, ex-Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), was legendary for his ability to leverage the votes of Transportation members to extract concessions from leadership. It is not clear whether Young will be able to exert similar pressure, but the committee does have 40 Republican members who constitute a sizable voting bloc.

Beyond timing, GOP leaders are also still considering the possibility of pushing a two-year highway bill instead of one that covers six years.

Currently, the Budget Committee expects to mark up the budget on March 10, and Hastert has indicated he would like the bill to be ready for the floor the week of March 15.

Transportation, meanwhile, plans to have a subcommittee markup of the highway bill Tuesday and a full committee markup the next day.

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