Senate votes to boost bridge repairs

The Senate voted Monday to provide an additional $1 billion for bridge repair and maintenance, part of ongoing efforts to prevent future bridge collapses like the one last month in Minneapolis.

The 60-33 vote to bolster bridge-repair funds came during initial debate on a $104.7 billion fiscal 2008 Transportation-Housing and Urban Development spending bill. Twelve Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and the Democrats in supporting it.

"Our bridges are deteriorating far faster than our ability to finance their replacement," said Murray, whose amendment boosted overall bridge repair spending in the bill to 25 percent above the current year.

Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., opposed the amendment, warning that the already strapped Highway Trust Fund faces significant shortfalls that will limit the committee's ability to provide adequate funds next year. "I do have the feeling we should not overreact" to the bridge collapse, he said.

The money would be distributed to the states according to a formula set by the 2005 highway law. In August, Congress authorized $250 million specifically for Minnesota; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Monday said she would seek additional funds to rebuild the I-35W bridge.

The underlying bill is subject to President Bush's threat to veto spending measures that are above his budget request. The Transportation-HUD bill is $4.4 billion above Bush's budget, including $3.1 billion more for HUD. Bush proposed $1 billion in cuts below this year for the agency.

It is unclear if Democratic leaders will be able to sustain those spending levels in final negotiations. But demonstrating the bipartisan support for the measure, Bond noted Monday that the funding boosts provided address "real pressing human problems" and that "I fear that both sides are going to have to make adjustments."

Even more striking was Bond's admonishment of HUD and the Office of Management and Budget for "failure to provide adequate" funds for project-based rental assistance, under which subsidies are paid to private landlords to make affordable housing available to elderly, disabled and low-income individuals and families. The program needs an additional $2 billion or families could lose their homes, Bond said.

Arguing that the administration did not anticipate the shortfall when it first submitted its budget request, Bond pleaded with the administration to request the money either with a budget amendment, supplemental or as part of a continuing resolution.

"Let's get serious about it. This is a critical and important program that serves many of our most vulnerable citizens ... if we don't fund it, they're out on the street. None of us want to see that result," Bond said.

"To my good friends at OMB, I say to you, you cannot walk away from this program. This problem is real and it must be addressed or we're going to see a tremendous tragedy for the nation's lowest income and most needy housing recipients."

An OMB spokesman disputed Bond's claims. "We are confident through our workings with HUD throughout the budget process last year that the proposal put forth by the President is reasonable and responsible," he said. Seizing on reports of a deadly truck blast in Mexico, senators today are expected to follow the House in barring the Bush administration next year from funding a pilot program allowing long-haul Mexican trucks to operate in the United States.

The Teamsters-backed amendment, offered by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is identical to language the House attached to its fiscal 2008 Transportation spending bill by voice vote. "I expect it will pass the Senate," Dorgan told reporters Monday.

Dorgan criticized the Bush administration for green-lighting the pilot program Sept. 6, one hour after a critical inspector general's report was released that evening.

"They either didn't read the report or didn't understand the report," Dorgan said.

The IG report indicates that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration "has not developed and implemented complete, coordinated plans" for checking Mexican trucks and drivers as they cross the border.

"In our opinion, not having site-specific plans developed and in place prior to initiating the demonstration project will increase the risk that project participants will be able to avoid the required checks," the report states.

Republican free-trade advocates opposed to the amendment said it would harm relations with Mexico, making a "bogeyman out of our neighbors to the South," as Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., put it.

He suggested that the opposition to the cross-border trucking plan was being orchestrated by protectionist interests afraid of competition, and Republicans were preparing an alternative amendment.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday the Senate will complete work on the spending bill by Wednesday afternoon, when the chamber is expected to shut down for the remainder of the week in observance of Rosh Hashana. That would make four fiscal 2008 spending bills out of 12 complete.

With the end of the fiscal year looming, Reid said senators have urged him to bring up the Labor-Health and Human Services and Energy and Water bills as well as the must-pass Defense appropriations bill before the chamber breaks for its Columbus Day recess.

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