Unlevel Congressional highway

Robert Novak
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Posted: Feb 23, 2004 12:00 AM

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."

But party lines break down over highways. During the recent Senate debate, the intensely partisan Democratic Whip Harry Reid of Nevada negotiated in the aisles with the intensely conservative Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Mainline Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri and liberal Independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont similarly worked hand in hand. Consequently, the final stages of the Feb. 12 Senate debate involved addition -- certainly not subtraction -- of highway money.

All this was done off the public record, in bipartisan secrecy. No details have been released, but we know a little thanks to reporting by John Stanton of CongressDaily. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, an appointive senator facing a tough election fight this year, got $30 million for roads connecting remote villages in her state. Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, also facing an election challenge, won more money for Puget Sound ferries. Going far afield from highways, Nevadan Reid -- also up for re-election -- got repeal of a casino wagering tax. Congressional staffers confirmed these provisions to this column but would not provide further details.

That's just the beginning of pork supplements. McCain sees "windfalls" blocked out in the bill's unspecified spending. These holes, he predicts, will be filled in the Senate-House conference to make the final version irresistible for congressional pork fanciers and, therefore, veto-proof.

The prospect that Bush's first veto will be overridden does not daunt the White House, with the president getting his first veto and Republican congressmen still getting their highways. That may be too clever by half to succeed with Americans, and Speaker Hastert is insisting he will have no part of subjecting his caucus to this vote. While either Bush or Hastert will have to back down, realists accept McCain's prediction that a vast and gaudy highway bill soon will be the law of the land whether the president or the speaker prevails tactically.