Senate Snubs White House on Highway Funds

The U.S. Senate defied the White House on Wednesday by voting to add more than $11 billion to long-delayed highway and transit funding legislation.

Nearly three dozen Republicans joined with Democrats to lift the budget ceiling that held transportation spending to $284 billion, which was proposed by the Bush administration and included in the version approved by the House of Representatives in March.

The spending total in the six-year Senate transportation bill is $295 billion. The chamber still had a number of amendments to address before voting on final passage. A vote is expected as early as Thursday.

A conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers will negotiate a final bill, and the figure could change during those talks.

Aides to Bush have said they would recommend Bush veto the highway bill if it exceeds his spending cap. Bush has yet to veto any legislation during his presidency.

But Senate lawmakers, by a 76-22 veto-proof margin, overruled Republican leaders who urged that they stick with the president’s figure.

Highway funding legislation is historically popular with both parties. Lawmakers covet the economic stimulus it creates, especially from the thousands of pet projects proposed by individual members.

However, Congress and the Bush administration have spent nearly two years wrangling over the cost of highway and transit funding. Bush believes anything higher than what he has proposed is wasteful and unworkable in an era of record budget deficits.

The Senate also defeated an amendment that would have restored a law, repealed 10 years ago, that would require motorcycle riders nationwide to wear helmets. Preliminary highway death figures for 2004 showed a 7.3 percent increase in motorcycle fatalities to 3,927.

The Senate has also approved an amendment to ban states from tolling motorists on existing interstate highways, repealing a provision from the last highway bill that has never been tried in any state.

Temporary legislation funding highway programs at 2003 levels expires at the end of the month.