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Highway Bill Stalls in Senate

The Senate is embroiled in a partisan fight over whether to pass emergency legislation designed to ease a funding shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.

Although President Bush has asked Congress to pass the measure quickly this week, a few Republicans have objected to several requests to pass the bill without debate.

Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) blasted Democrats for excessive spending and their attempt to use money from a general treasury, instead of the Highway Trust Fund, which is normally used to finance highway repair projects. Gregg requested Wednesday morning that two amendments be offered to the highway bill — one dealing with the budget and another, sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), to reduce “nonessential projects.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rejected the consent request, saying there is not enough time to get into an extended debate on the bill.

“The 50 states are facing a highway funding crisis if we don’t get this bill to the president’s desk immediately,” said Reid, noting that Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has warned of dire consequences if the bill is not on the president’s desk by Friday.

Without the bill, states will receive significantly less highway money, something Reid said would “mean immediate layoffs” of hundreds of thousands of construction workers and contractors.

“We need to pass the bill now with an immediate implementation date so that our governors and our highway workers will know they’ll have the federal funds they are owed,” Reid said. “Anything short of that is playing Russian roulette with our economy.”

The Senate is in a time crunch because Reid aims to get through a lengthy list of legislation, such as energy, the highway bill, the Defense authorization and the annual appropriations for fiscal 2009 before adjourning in three weeks.