Will GOP Defy Bush on Highway Spending?

With a presidential veto threat looming, the Senate voted earlier this month to ignore the White House’s request to keep funding for the highway bill at $284 billion—busting the budget by $11 billion—and sending a bloated bill to a House-Senate conference committee for resolution.

When senators had the opportunity to hold the line on spending, 33 Republicans joined 43 Democrats to hike the highway bill to $295 billion. Recognizing the excess spending, Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R.-N.H.) raised a budget point of order May 11 to trim the bill back to the $284 billion—the level already approved by the House. Gregg’s motion was rejected 76-22.

The House-Senate conference committee must now either approve a bill with the lower funding level set by the House or flout the President’s veto threat.

Last week, Human Events Managing Editor Robert Bluey tracked down eight of the 33 Republicans who voted to hike spending, and asked them if they would override a presidential veto.

The other 25 Republicans who voted against Gregg’s motion (and thus for higher spending) are Senators Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Robert Bennett (Utah), Jim Bunning (Ky.), Conrad Burns (Mont.), Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Mike DeWine (Ohio), Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Dick Lugar (Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Pat Roberts (Kansas), Rick Santorum (Pa.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), Gordon Smith (Ore.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Ted Stevens (Alaska), Jim Talent (Mo.), John Thune (S.D.), George Voinovich (Ohio) and John Warner (Va.).

You voted to increase spending on the highway bill by $11 billion.

Sen. Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.): Right. The President has said he would veto anything over $284 billion.

Martinez: Right.

Would you vote to override a veto, if that were what it came to?

Martinez: We’ll wait to see what the conference committee reports back. But I think Florida road funding is so important and so desperately needed, I would not hesitate to override a presidential veto, if it meant additional road funds for Florida. But my hope is there will be something coming out of conference that the President finds reasonable. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.


Could I ask you about the highway bill?

Sen. Pete Domenici (R.-N.M.): You guys are crazy. The highway bill in the middle of all this [debate on the judicial filibuster}?

You voted to increase the funding by $11 billion, and as you know, the President doesn’t want anything more than $284 billion. If he vetoed it, would you override his veto?

Domenici: Look, I don’t expect us to knock heads with him. He’s going to get a bill that he’ll sign. So I don’t have to answer your question.


You’ve increased the highway bill by $11 billion. The President has said he doesn’t want it higher than $284 billion, and he’s threatened to veto it. What if he does veto it? Would you override it?

Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.): I would be willing to do that. But I am going to remind you that I am the No. 1 ranked conservative in the U.S. Senate. And yet I’m a big spender in two areas: national defense and infrastructure.

What we’re supposed to be doing here—and this bill does not increase, even at $295 billion, the deficit. It’s not a matter of overriding a veto. It’s a matter of the speaker of the House and the leader of the Senate bringing it up for consideration. I will be pushing for a higher number, so long as it’s paid for.


You were among a group of Republicans who voted to increase the highway bill by $11 billion. The President wants it at $284 billion. If he vetoes it, would you override the veto?

Sen. Trent Lott (R.-Miss.): He’s not going to veto it, because we’re not going to send it to him in a way that will force him to veto it. We don’t know what the total number will be—probably something less than what the Senate had. We’re going to have to be careful and innovative, and I’ve urged the President, personally, to keep that option open.

We need this highway bill. It’s important for jobs. It’s important for the economy. It’s important for safety. And so I believe in conference we’ll work through our alternatives, come up with a good bill, and the President will sign it.


You voted to increase spending on the highway bill.

Sen. Richard Burr (R.-N.C.): I voted to increase the percentage that went to the state of North Carolina, which de facto increased the spending, and then I turned around and voted to decrease the overall spending now that we had the percentage cap locked in.

So where were you on Sen. Gregg’s budget point of order? You voted to table it, according to my count.

Burr: That’s correct.

Now, the President says he wants the bill at $284 billion. If he vetoes it, would you vote to override the veto?

Burr: I don’t know yet. I don’t deal with hypotheticals. I’m not convinced anyone knows what will happen. But I clearly voted—I think the last vote we took was to reduce the overall appropriations number back to $284 billion. My concern was to make sure we had a formula in place that the donor states—North Carolina is one of them—got up to 92%. And that’s what we accomplished by voting for it originally when we raised it, and I voted to roll it back with the 92% locked in.


On the highway bill, you voted to increase the spending by $11 billion.

Sen. Kit Bond (R.-Mo.): Yes, we authorized the Finance Committee tofind additional revenue. They added additional revenue, not only to fund $11 billion more, but also to reduce the deficit by another $14 billion over a 10-year period.

The President says he wants the final bill at $284 billion, or he’s threatening to veto it. Would you override a veto, if that were what he did?

Bond: We’ll see. I have done that before. That was my first significant vote when I came here in 1987 on the highway bill. I was the deciding vote that overrode President Reagan’s veto.

So if it came down to it, would you do it again?

Bond: I have expressed the hope we could work out an understanding with the White House.


You were one of the Republican senators who voted to increase funding on the highway bill. The President says he wants it at $284 billion. If he vetoes it, as he’s threatened to do, would you override his veto?

Sen. David Vitter (R.-La.): I’d have to look at that carefully. I haven’t been able to do that yet, so I don’t know.

Do you think it will come back from conference acceptable to the White House?

Vitter: I really do think it’s very likely that some agreement will be reached with the White House, so I don’t think the veto will happen.


On the highway bill, you voted to increase it by $11 billion. The President has said he doesn’t want anything more than $284 billion. If he vetoes it, would you override him?

Sen. George Allen (R.-Va.): We’ll see what it looks like when it finally gets through. I don’t care to speculate on where this will come out of the conference committee. I would like to get as much highway revenues as is practical for building roads. In the past, they wouldn’t spend all the highway trust fund money. I think that what we have in the Senate version are legitimate highway revenues. We’ll see what comes out of the conference. They’ll probably split the differences and the President will split the differences. So we’ll probably not have to get to answering such a question.