July 30, 2005

Bush draws heat from conservatives on highway bill

By Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite big legislative wins this
week, President Bush is drawing heat from some conservatives
over his plans to sign a highway bill that critics say
warranted a veto because it is chock full of extra spending.

Bush was pleased by a mid-July report from his budget
office that slashed the fiscal 2005 deficit forecast to $333
billion -- down nearly $100 billion from its February
projection and lower than last year's $412 billion shortfall.

But Bush, whose first four years in office saw a shift from
record surplus to record deficits, has some persuading to do
with members of his own Republican Party when he extols a
commitment to fiscal discipline.

Many Republican activists are upset over the six-year
$286.5 billion highway bill approved by Congress on Friday.
Bush's aides made clear he would sign the bill even though he
previously pledged to veto any measure above $284 billion.

"This bill is an egregiously bloated spending bill and this
all happens as we move to the final phase of the spending
season," said Pat Toomey, head of the Club for Growth, a group
that raises money for Republican candidates.

By backing down on a pledge to hold the line on highway
funds, Toomey said Bush was sending a signal of laxity to
Congress as it prepares to finalize spending bills this fall,
which often include funds for members' pet projects in their

"How will his future threats be taken seriously?" Toomey


Former House of Representatives Republican Leader Dick
Armey said a highway-bill veto would be a chance to show
Congress "the spending spree is over."

The legislation, which lays out guaranteed amounts of money
for road and transit projects, was overwhelmingly approved in
both chambers of Congress. Such bills give lawmakers a chance
to show they are funneling funds back to their districts and
spurring construction and new jobs.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan has said that Bush
felt lawmakers had come a long way in whittling down the bill's
cost. A Senate version of the bill in May sought $295 billion.

An administration official, eager to emphasize a push to
hold the line on spending, said White House budget director
Joshua Bolten spoke this week to House of Representatives
lawmakers to oppose Senate plans to shift funds out of the
defense budget to pay for non-security programs.

Budget analysts see the Senate move as a gimmick intended
to free up more money because the defense funds will be
replenished in a supplemental spending bill for Iraq and the
war on terror.

William Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute think
tank, referred to the highway bill as an "abomination" but said
Bush likely agreed to it to buy votes for a key priority, the
U.S. Central-American Free Trade Agreement.

The CAFTA pact narrowly passed this week. Bush's
long-sought revamp of energy policy also passed Congress this

Niskanen said it may also have been in Bush's interest to
avoid a fight with the Senate on a spending bill as he seeks
approval of his nominee to the Supreme Court, John Roberts.

Brian Riedl, budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation
think tank, said that while at some point Bush may have to veto
a spending bill, letting the highway bill go through won't by
itself spell fiscal doom.

"The president has convinced Congress to generally stick
within his discretionary spending guidelines," Riedl said.