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Senate OKs over-budget highway bill

WASHINGTON – After struggling all spring to pass a belt-tightening fiscal 2006 budget, the Senate overrode it the first chance it got to boost funding for highway projects.

Wednesday’s 76-22 vote allows the $284 billion package to grow by about $11 billion, setting the stage for a veto showdown with President Bush, who has insisted on a $284 billion cap. It’s a shaky start to a year that’s supposed to be marked by fiscal austerity. But the revolt’s wide margin suggests that many Republicans are prepared to buck the White House to address what they regard as an urgent national concern.

For many lawmakers, relieving traffic snarls, filling potholes and repairing ailing bridges are as fundamental a government responsibility as funding the military. “It’s like a homeowner saying, you know what? The budget is tight … I’m not going to fix the hole in my roof because that might cost money,” said Sen. James Talent, R-Mo., usually a stalwart Bush backer.

Transportation projects create jobs, Talent noted, but they also help the economy function more effectively by getting people to work on time. “The American people cannot on their own build roads. That’s a job that the government has got to do,” he said.

The House earlier approved a $284 billion bill, but while it technically meets the Bush limit, it would allow Congress to reconsider state funding allocations before the bill expires in 2009. That caveat drew a veto threat. Many House Republicans are rooting for a larger Senate package so that a higher number is on the table during negotiations. The Senate could vote on the full bill as early as today. Senators pressing hardest for the increase represent “donor states,” which take in more in highway taxes – mainly from gasoline sales – than they get back in project funding. Much of the extra money will go to boosting donor-state allocations. Talent’s state of Missouri would see its return boosted to 98 cents on the dollar, up from 90.5 cents.

“As a conservative Republican, I wholeheartedly support it,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who wrote the bill, and whose state has donor status.

At the heart of the bill is a complex funding structure that takes into account a state’s contribution to the Highway Trust Fund, its population, median household income and fatalities on its interstates.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., implored the Senate not to increase the total, but when their GOP colleagues pressed ahead, an unusual confrontation erupted between one of the Senate’s more low-key members, Gregg, and one of its more congenial, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, whose committee assembled the tax increases and other revenue raisers that offset the additional $11 billion.