Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- President George W. Bush and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, normally staunch Republican allies, could not disagree more on the politics of the elephantine highway bill pending in Congress. The president is eager to cast his first veto to show restive conservatives he really is an economizer. The speaker wants to avoid a veto, which would put his beleaguered Republican House members on the spot in a veto override vote, forced to chose between conservatism and concrete.

Bush repeatedly has warned he will veto any bill over his six-year limit of $256 billion, which is $38 billion over current spending levels. The Senate's bill would cost $318 billion. Defending his reputation as the reigning Mr. Concrete on Capitol Hill, House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young of Alaska has pushed a $375 billion bill, which is to be cut down to $310 billion in the Appropriations Committee. The gap between Republican Congress and Republican president seems too wide to bridge.

Like much else in Washington, however, this debate is not on the level. Politicians are posturing about how they will look rather than on how much should be spent on what kind of roads. Only senators and select staffers know the actual contents of the bill supported by a huge majority of senators in defiance of Bush's warnings. Indeed, more public works goodies are yet to be stuffed into this package to satisfy what critical Republican Sen. John McCain calls "an addiction to pork" by his colleagues.

In the background, the right is rumbling over the Bush administration's failure to put a lid on spending. It was decided weeks ago inside the White House to draw the line on the highway bill by threatening a veto. Chairman Young, offended that a mere president would defy him, wailed in a Feb. 4 public letter: "I am extremely disappointed."

Democrats, who berate Bush as a spendthrift while proposing higher expenditures across the board, are overjoyed. "He is taunting the Congress in order to regain his right-wing wacko base who would rather build roads in Iraq than in this country," said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia. More soberly, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana said: "I doubt that his first veto would be a highway bill."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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