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Inhofe Hopes to Add Funds to Highway Bill

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) expects to send out of committee on Wednesday a $284 billion highway funding bill, but he’s hoping that with the help of other Senators he can add as much as $17 billion to that total when the bill hits the Senate floor in late April.

Still, that may be a tall order, given the White House’s continued refusal to accept a bill more costly than $284 billion and the Senate Finance Committee’s quandary in finding enough offsets to pay for a bill with as much as $301 billion in guaranteed spending — the same amount that the Senate passed last year.

However, Inhofe was confident last week that if he can find the offsets, the White House would capitulate.

“The president had actually talked about $256 [billion last year], but he did move it up because they were able to find more money,” Inhofe said of the White House’s conversion to advocating $284 billion this year. “I think if we’re able to find more money the president will be receptive to a higher number.”

That sentiment, however, stands in stark contrast to the White House’s Statement of Administration Policy on the House’s $284 billion bill, which passed that chamber last week.

“Should the obligation or net authorization levels in the final bill exceed these limits, the President’s senior advisors would recommend he veto the bill,” the March 8 statement said.

But because the White House revealed its flexibility in moving from its previously firm $256 billion cap last year to a $284 billion cap this year, Members are feeling more comfortable challenging them, Senate aides said.

Even so, if the White House continues to issue veto threats, Congress could find itself in the same situation as last year: a stalemate without a resolution.

Meanwhile, Inhofe rejected the notion, floated by a few House GOP aides, of simply overriding a Bush veto.

“No, no, no. Definitely not,” Inhofe said. “We want to work it out so there won’t be a veto.”

However, based on the 417-9 House vote Thursday and the expectation that 70 or more Senators will support that chamber’s version, it’s clear both chambers have more than the two-thirds majority needed to quash a presidential veto — which could be the president’s first since taking office.

But it’s not just the White House that has placed obstacles in Inhofe’s way. One Senate GOP aide said the dynamics that allowed the Senate to pass a highway funding bill with $318 billion in contract authority last year have radically changed this year.

Many of the offsets allocated last year for the mammoth bill have now been used up in other measures, such as an international corporate tax bill, known as FSC/ETI, that was enacted last year, the aide said.

Inhofe “may be counting on things that aren’t there,” the aide warned.

The aide added, “Many offsets that were acceptable to the House are gone.” Indeed, the Senate has previously proposed offsetting some highway costs with general funds, but House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) opposes that practice.

Inhofe acknowledged that he has not yet worked out the funding schema with Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), with whom Inhofe said he speaks regularly about the highway bill.

“They’re not in a position to do it yet,” Inhofe said.

In the meantime, Inhofe points out that he has another strong ally on the Finance Committee: ranking member Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Baucus is also the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, which is charged with crafting the highway bill.

Baucus also expressed support for a highway bill “closer to $300” billion, but acknowledged the process of finding offsets was difficult.

“There are lots of different plays. We’re just trying to find out which one works,” Baucus said.

Still, Baucus and Environment and Public Works ranking member Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) have agreed to hold their amendments for the floor, because Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told Inhofe he would not bring a measure to the floor that cost more than $284 billion.

A more expensive highway bill may not be completely anathema to the House GOP leadership, though it remains unclear how House leaders feel about directly challenging the president’s veto threat.

Still, the reason that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had for refusing to take on the White House last year — the neck-and-neck presidential election — is no longer relevant.

Moreover, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has been one of the strongest advocates for increasing the minimum amount that states can expect to receive in highway funds, from about 90 cents on the dollar to 95 cents. That goal, which the House did not reach this year with its $284 billion bill, could be within striking distance with a $301 billion measure.

But this week’s Environment and Public Works markup is far from the last word on the Senate highway bill before it comes to the Senate floor. In addition to consideration by the Finance panel, the bill must also wend its way through the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation panel.

Andrew Gray, spokesman for Senate Banking Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), said the panel may mark up its portion of the bill this week as well. Banking has jurisdiction over funding for mass transit projects in the bill, which is about 20 percent of the total, Gray said.

Shelby also favors increasing the bill’s cost to accommodate more funding for light rails, subways and bus systems around the country, Gray said.

The Commerce panel won’t deal with its small section on highway safety until after the upcoming two-week Congressional recess, spokeswoman Melanie Alvord said.

The current stopgap measure keeping highway funding steady at 2002 levels expires at the end of May. Both chambers hope to have bills passed and reconciled before then.

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